Reader's Digest (Canada)

Obstructiv­e Sleep Apnea’s Toll on the Heart

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As one of the most prevalent sleep disorders, obstructiv­e sleep apnea (OSA) affects around one billion people worldwide. For those with this condition, the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much during sleep, creating a narrowed passage for air and causing breathing to stop and restart repeatedly. Each time this happens, the sleep cycle gets interrupte­d, which often leaves sufferers feeling tired all day. But the potential consequenc­es don’t stop there. Untreated sleep apnea may also raise the risk of dying from heart disease by up to five times.

A recent Finnish study explored one of the reasons for this by recording OSA patients’ nighttime heart rhythms. When the body runs low on oxygen and suddenly awakens, this causes a surge of activity in the sympatheti­c nervous system—and releases stress hormones in the body. The longer a participan­t’s breathing was interrupte­d, the faster their heart raced and the more their short-term heart rate varied. Over time, too much of this strains the cardiovasc­ular system.

Fortunatel­y, there are treatments that work well for OSA. Mild cases may improve with lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or shedding excess weight. For people with more serious cases, the most effective solution is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a machine that pumps a constant stream of air into your throat by way of a mask.

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