Sleep apnea must be taken seriously as it can result in direct and indirect deaths. So how can sleep apnea cause death? Well, there are actually a number of different ways. Some are the direct result of apneic events while others are indirectly related to sleep apnea (or "sleep apnoea" in British english, common misspellings — sleep apnia, sleep apena and sleep aponea).
During sleep, sleep apnea patients can stop breathing dozens, even hundreds of times per night from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. During these apneic events the body is deprived of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels increase.
Every cell in the body needs oxygen. Cells in the brain, heart and organs deteriorate with prolonged periods without oxygen. Usually the brain detects the reduction in oxygen levels and pumps hormones into your system to wake you up and get you breathing again.
There is a correlation between sleep apnea and diabetes. Oxygen starvation triggers the stress response and releases adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This can result in reduced insulin sensitivity. Once the body loses its ability to maintain blood sugar levels and requires more insulin the stage is set for the development of diabetes.
Can sleep apnea cause death? In the case of diabetes, yes. There are other correlations between sleep apnea and diabetes as well. Both conditions generally go undiagnosed. Here is a shocking statistic:
93% of women and 82% of men with moderate to severe sleep apnea syndrome have not been clinically diagnosed.1 About 40 percent of men with type II diabetes also have sleep apnea and that percentage rises to 61 percent of men over 65.2
The lowered oxygen levels caused by sleep apnea cause the heart to have to work harder. This also causes damage to all the organs but particularly dangerous is the impact on the heart. This is expecially true for those with a pre-existing heart condition who then develop sleep apnea as well. This double-whammy puts the patient at a much higer risk of having a fatal heart attack.
Sleep apnea has also been linked to fatal strokes. "Yale researcher H. Klar Yaggi, MD, MPH, director of the VA Connecticut sleep laboratory, and colleagues"... have determined that "Those patients with obstructive sleep apnea had about a twofold increased risk of stroke or dying compared to those without sleep apnea," and "Those with more severe obstructive sleep apnea had threefold risk of stroke or death from any cause -- and that was after adjusting for other stroke risk factors."3
Sleep apnea makes it difficult to get a good nights rest. One of the symptoms of sleep apnea is tiredness after waking and during the day. This fatigue makes it harder to maintain concentration and lowers reaction times. Sleep apnea sufferers are more prone to motor vehicle, heavy equipment and workplace accidents that can be fatal.
Drivers with sleep apnea can be up to 15 times as likely to wind up in a crash. In a worst-case-scenario the sleep apnea sufferer will fall asleep at the wheel. In other cases micro-sleep can be induced where the brain falls asleep for a second or so. Even just the slower reaction time is like driving while mildly intoxicated. These add up to fatalities caused by sleep apnea, albeit indirectly.
The range of physical problems like reduced oxygen levels, damage to the body, release of stress hormones like cortisol as well as the psychological drain from relentless tiredness can result in depression.
Left untreated, clinical depression can give rise to thoughts of suicide. If you are feeling depressed please mention this to your doctor. Your doctor can recommend options to address both the sleep apnea and depression. Don't suffer in silence.
If you are going in for surgery for any reason and you will be anesthetized it is very important that you tell the surgeon and the anesthethist that you have sleep apnea.
They will be able to then take precautions to ensure that your airway remains open, not only during the surgery but after surgery in the recovery room.
This information will likely be requested in your pre-surgery interviews but be sure to make a point of it so that everyone involved in your surgical proceedure is made fully aware that you have sleep apnea.
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As we have seen the answer to the question, "Can sleep apnea cause death?" is definitely "Yes." So please take precautions and seek out the advise of your doctor. Sleep apnea treatments, such as CPAP, have proven to improve sleep and, therefore reduce the chances of sleep apnea resulting in death.