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Sleep Apnea and Heart Health


by Kim Beardsmore

sleeperWhilst being tremendously debilitating due to incessant tiredness, sleep apnea also has a much more insidious effect on the human system.  In fact, sleep apnea if left untreated can be dangerous leading to serious health problems  such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, hypertension, abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), excessive carbon dioxide levels (hypercapnia), stroke and heart disease. The link between sleep apnea and heart disease as yet however is still not completely understood.

Despite the link between heart related health problems and sleep apnea, researchers are unable to determine whether sleep apnea directly contributes to the development of heart disease or exactly what other factors are involved. One thing however, is clear- for a person diagnosed with sleep apnea in the present, this person's chance of developing hypertension at some stage in the future are very great. Studies have shown that when those who suffer from sleep apnea and high blood pressure are treated for both, the two conditions improve significantly. This also is the case for heart disease and sleep apnea.

During a sleep apnea episode at night, blood pressure will shoot up because the level of oxygen drops and thus serves to stimulate receptors in the body that make their way to the brain. Once this happens, the brain sends a message to the nervous system informing the blood vessels to "tighten up" so to speak, to allow them to increase the oxygen flow to both the brain and the heart and then to other parts of the body.

A patient who suffers from the cessation of breathing many times per night that lasts for anywhere from one to four minutes at a time can cause a great deal of stress overload on the heart. Interestingly enough this phenomena tends to carry over into a patient's waking hours. The reduced levels of oxygen are likely to set off "multiple mechanisms" that take place even when the patient is awake and breathing regularly.

Those with sleep apnea are 2.3 times more likely to develop congestive heart failure than are those without sleep apnea. For obstructive sleep apnea patients the risk for having a stroke is 1.5 times more likely. As well those who suffer from atrial fibrillation can have more complications due to obstructive sleep apnea. Atrial fibrillation is a condition where the atrium (or upper portion of the heart) is not beating in synch with the ventricle (or lower portion of the heart).

The treatment for atrial fibrillation is to "cardiovert" the heart. What this means is that the atrium is reset in such a way that it beats in harmony with the ventricle. After going through the "cardioversion" over half of patients find that their atrial fibrillation will return. Those suffering from obstructive sleep apnea are likely to have an eighty percent chance that they will suffer from the heart problem again in the future. The risk of sudden, expected death is greatly increased in patients who suffer from both obstructive sleep apnea as well as any heart related problem.

Regular visits to the doctor and following the proper treatments including taking medications as directed is so important for those who suffer from both of these types of serious health problems. If left untreated either one of these conditions together can cause serious damage to a patient.




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