When you're thinking about heart health, don't forget about sleep

Feb 19, 2018

February is American Heart Month, and while there are many topics such as diet, exercise, and smoking that people commonly associate with the heart, one important one is sometimes overlooked.

Amid the many things that can lead to a healthy or unhealthy heart is sleep. An estimated 30-million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but only as many as 6-million are treated.

“This is a dangerous disease that involves repeated collapse of the upper airway during sleep,” explained Dr. Ilene Rosen, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Credit National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project

As part of the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project, the academy is partnering with the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control to get the message out that sleep apnea hurts hearts.

When the airway is closed due to apnea, organs in the body don’t get enough oxygen and signal the brain to wake up. That kind of arousal and the drop in oxygen can put a lot of stress on the heart.

According to Rosen, untreated obstructive sleep apnea – especially if it’s severe – can double the risk of dying from heart disease. Apnea can also be linked with a number of other heart health complications.

“It’s not just that someone’s sleepy during the day, but that they can have high blood pressure, they can develop heart failure, they can have a stroke, they can have electrical arrhythmias with their heart – the most common one being atrial fibrillation,” said Rosen. “Even type 2 diabetes is related to having untreated severe obstructive sleep apnea.”

So what can you do? Be aware of the signs – the biggest is snoring.

“Particularly somebody who wasn’t snoring and now is, or who has always snored but now the snoring is really getting worse…That’s someone who should think about it, particularly if they’ve gained weight or if they’re in the obese category in terms of their body mass index,” said Rosen.

The next step to take is talking to a doctor about whether sleep apnea may be occurring, and possibly consulting a sleep medicine professional for further evaluation.

Treating the problem often includes the use of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure – known more commonly as CPAP. Though Rosen explained it’s not necessary for everyone, especially in more mild cases.

“Even something as simple as weight loss, or if symptoms are worse on your back – we can tell that during a sleep study. And you can be advised and given ways to sleep on your side such that the snoring is minimized and any apnea that would occur on your back is gone.”

To be clear, there is not always a direct link between sleep apnea and cardiovascular illness. In mild or moderate cases of obstructive sleep apnea, Rosen said there “might” be a problem. In more severe cases, data shows a definite link.

Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter @SAvery131.