Sleep apnea is a serious condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Unfortunately it isn’t something that will simply pass with time. The reality is that it’s classified as a “progressive disease”, meaning it gets worse over time much like diabetes, cancer or heart disease.
There is some debate among health professionals as to the effect of sleep apnea on other medical conditions. There is a firm connection with some conditions, however – diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and hypertension to name a few.
There is ongoing research being done into how sleep apnea can contribute to these conditions. Several common causes of sleep apnea are smoking, abusing alcohol and being overweight, all of which can lead to heart disease and hypertension. Unfortunately, some people who don’t deal with any of these causes still develop sleep apnea and the causes are largely unknown.
During a sleep apnea episode, there is a stoppage of breathing which leads to a higher level of carbon dioxide in the blood (due to the decrease in oxygen). This results in other events – both chemical and physical – taking place in the body and it is believed this is partly the cause of the development of these other conditions.
Researchers have discovered that overweight people who suffer from sleep apnea have high levels of immune factors known as “tumor necrosis factor-alpha” (or TNF-Alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL-6).
Both of these factors in high levels can lead to cell damage, particularly in the arteries. One recent study has shown that people who have higher than normal levels of TNF-Alpha suffered from excessive tiredness, being short of breath and weak heart pumping.
Having said that, thus far there has been no scientifically established relationship between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and heart disease.
A number of studies have been done, examining the link between high blood pressure and sleep apnea. One such study was done in 2000 – it tracked patients over a period of 4 years and showed that a higher number of sleep apnea episodes in the first year increased their risk of developing hypertension by the third and fourth years.
This link was weaker but still present in people who snored or suffered from a mild form of sleep apnea.
At one time the link between hypertension and sleep apnea was thought to be due in a large part to obesity. Recent studies have shown otherwise, however – sleep apnea sufferers have a high occurrence of hypertension regardless of their weight.