Sydney: Sleep apnea (or apnoea) is a condition where people repeatedly stop breathing while asleep. People with sleep apnoea often complain of daytime sleepiness, difficulties concentrating, and they tend to have high blood pressure. The people around them usually complain about their nightly snoring, gasping, and choking noises. About 5% of people have treatable moderate or severe sleep apnoea, which means they stop breathing 15 times or more times per hour while asleep. A larger number of people - as many as 20% of middle-aged folk - have mild sleep apnoea, which means they stop breathing around five to 15 times an hour.
Although this may sound pretty scary, it's still not clear that this
mild version causes ill health.
Left untreated, sleep apnoea will
not only shorten your life by hastening a string of illnesses, it may
also increase your risk of suffering from depression. And the general
sleepiness of people with the condition is thought to as much as triple
their risk for car accidents and injury.
prevalence of sleep apnoea increases in ageing societies that are
getting heavier, along with other age and obesity-related diseases. But
studies from around the world show your risk of developing these
diseases is strongly influenced by whether or not you have sleep apnoea
in the first place. In particular, the condition has been linked to
stroke and cancer.
The consequences of stroke can range from
between temporary inconvenience to serious life-altering disability and
death. Smoking, cholesterol, and high blood pressure are three key
causes of stroke that you can control. And, unfortunately, sleep apnoea
has a big impact on the latter.
The condition causes your daytime
blood pressure to increase a little bit over the long term. And, while
you're asleep, it causes massive spikes in blood pressure. Sleep apnoea
also might make your ability to process cholesterol a little less
So it's not terribly surprising that studies from
Spain, the United States, and Australia have all found people with
untreated sleep apnoea are three times more likely to have a stroke.
of the more surprising recent research findings is sleep apnoea's
influence on cancer risk. Researchers really weren't expecting to find
this because we'd always thought sleep apnoea mainly influenced heart
But in study after study from around the world we've seen
that sleep apnoea increases the risk of cancer as well. And this
association is not explained by other known cancer risks.
stage, we don't think sleep apnoea causes cells to become cancerous. It
might be that if you have a few cancer cells in your body, the constant
up and down of oxygen levels in your blood while you sleep causes those
cells to grow more quickly. So instead of having a cancer that you never
even realise you have or a slow-growing one, you get a faster growing
and more aggressive version.
It's yet to be confirmed but melanomas are thought to be particularly likely to proliferate quickly when you have sleep apnoea.
Some good news
the harbinger of bad news isn't much fun so I'd like to give you some
good news now. If you've only got mild sleep apnoea, or you just snore a
bit, you probably don't have an increased risk of illness.
fact, if you have mild sleep apnoea, you might be able to manage your
risk quite effectively with dietary changes, which will improve your
overall heath and stop you from developing a more severe version of the
If you've got severe sleep apnoea, it's really serious
but still treatable, so it's time to see a sleep doctor and get
something done about it. More good news: if you do have severe sleep
apnoea and you get it treated, your risk is much, much lower.
all this adds up to is that sleep apnoea needs to be taken seriously;
it's not just a nuisance snoring condition. Not only will treatment help
make you feel better, it will also reduce your risk for all kinds of
attendant bad things from happening.
This article was first published in The Conversation.