Can Sleep Apnea Kill You? Here Are the Results From A Recent Study

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Sleep Apnea is a disorder in which you repeatedly stop breathing while asleep.

There are two primary types of sleep apnea: Obstructive (OSA) and Central (CSA). However, some people may experience both forms, and this is categorized as Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome.

While some symptoms of this sleep disorder, like snoring, may come across as a mere nuisance, this condition can be more severe than you realize.

We’ll answer the following questions: can sleep apnea kill you, what are the important symptoms and treatments you should know about, and other relevant health issues and questions relating to this topic.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the more common form of this disorder. However, OSA and CSA symptoms typically overlap. In some cases, a person may not even realize they’re experiencing signs of sleep apnea and may find out about it through their partner.

The following are Sleep Apnea symptoms[1] to be aware of.

  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing starts and stops during the night (also known as “central sleep apnea”)
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Trouble staying asleep 
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness 
  • Difficulty concentrating while awake
  • Irritability

When Should I See a Doctor?

Any problem that hinders your ability to rest well can impact other aspects of your life and well-being. Experts with the Mayo Clinic suggest talking to your doctor if you have any of the above-mentioned signs of sleep apnea disorder.

Animated Image of a Woman Struggling to Fall Asleep Because Her Partner Has Sleep Apnea

The Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

Sleep-Deprived Partner

Frequent snoring and gasping for air can be problematic for not only your health but your partner’s. The loud noises may prevent your partner from getting a good night’s rest, affecting their overall well-being.

Daytime Fatigue

Excessive tiredness can cause you to have trouble concentrating or be more likely to exhibit irritable moods. This could result in poor performance at work or school. For those who commute to their job, sleepiness while driving can be highly dangerous as well.

High Blood Pressure and Heart Problems

According to the Mayo Clinic, individuals with sleep apnea may experience high blood pressure and heart problems. When you stop breathing, this creates a sudden drop in oxygen blood levels. Experts warn those frequent, sudden drops can cause your blood pressure to rise and strain the cardiovascular system.

Furthermore, this sleep disorder increases your chance of getting a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal heartbeats.

Type 2 Diabetes

Health experts say sleep apnea can cause your body to develop a resistance to insulin and affect your glucose metabolism, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes[2]. Advanced age and obesity are risk factors for type 2 diabetes as well as sleep apnea.

Illustration of a Man Snoring While Sleeping

Metabolic Syndrome

Sleep apnea has also been linked to metabolic syndrome – or MS. People living with MS may experience both metabolic and cardiovascular complications, including hypertension, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, and an increase in waist circumference. Researchers[3] suggest MS could trigger obstructive sleep apnea, though additional research needs to be done to better understand the correlation between these two health conditions.

Surgery and Medication Complications

Major surgery, anesthesia, or certain medications could be problematic for patients with sleep apnea since they are easily susceptible to breathing issues. Therefore, Mayo Clinic experts recommend notifying your doctor of your sleep apnea before surgery.

Liver Problems

Those with sleep apnea are more vulnerable to abnormal liver tests and scarring from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

How Does Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Partner Can't Sleep Because The Other One Snores

According to health experts, sleep apnea itself isn’t fatal, but rather the complications resulting from it can cause death, particularly cardiovascular-related problems.

A study[4] published in 2013 followed nearly 11,000 people. They found that those with obstructive sleep apnea had higher risk of sudden cardiac-related death.

Furthermore, experts warn that not treating a sleep apnea disorder could also prove deadly. Research points to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death when sleep apnea is left untreated[5].

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two primary ways to diagnose this disorder: nocturnal polysomnography or at-home tests.

When you initially visit your doctor, they may perform an evaluation before referring you to a sleep center. There, the specialist will likely have you undergo the Nocturnal polysomnography test, in which you’ll be hooked up to equipment while you sleep. This equipment will monitor your heart, lung, and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels.

You may also have the choice of doing tests at home instead to observe your heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow, and breathing patterns while asleep.

A Doctor Listening to a Patient Illustration

Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Lifestyle Changes

CPAP – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure

People with moderate to severe sleep apnea usually need to use a CPAP machine, which is a small pump that looks like a mask covering your nose and mouth, delivering a supply of compressed air.

illustration of CPAP kit

MAD – Mandibular Advancement Device

This device looks similar to mouthguards that athletes use in sports. A MAD[6] works to move the jaw and tongue forward to minimize any restrictions in the back of the throat.

Surgery

Surgery is considered a last resort when other treatments have failed. There is a range of surgical treatments that have been used for sleep apnea, including tissue removal or shrinkage, soft palate implants, jaw repositioning, or tongue nerve stimulation. The Mayo Clinic reports that the most severe cases may require a tracheostomy, in which a surgeon makes an opening in your neck and inserts a tube to help you breathe.

What Was Carrie Fisher’s Cause of Death?

Carrie Fisher was beloved for her iconic role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. The actress and writer passed away in 2016 at the age of 60.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, officials reported that sleep apnea and heart disease were major factors in Fisher’s death. The heart disease caused Fisher’s arteries to harden, ultimately leading to the heart attack that killed her.

Read More: 19 Celebrities With Sleep Apnea

Other Celebrities with Deaths Connected to Sleep Apnea

In addition to Carrie Fisher, there have been other celebrity deaths linked to this sleep disorder.

  • James Gandolfini 
  • John Candy
  • Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia
  • President William Howard Taft
  • NFL player Reggie White

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a CPAP machine make you sick?

Those who use these machines need to clean and maintain them well. This is because a contaminated device could expose your skin to harmful germs, resulting in dirty bacteria touching your face and possibly causing irritation or infection[7].

Additionally, if the pump is not properly cleaned, you could breathe in bacteria or mold.

CPAP machines and cancer

There’s been some recent concern after CPAP machines from Philips were recalled[8]. Researchers found that foam on the machine could break down and become toxic, possibly leading to cancer.

However, some positive research suggests that CPAPs may be able to help suppress cancer-related genes[9].

The risks of untreated sleep apnea can be just as lethal as cancer, but if you have concerns about CPAP devices, you should consult with your doctor.

Sources and References:

  • [1] “Sleep Apnea“, Mayo Clinic, July 28, 2020
  • [2] Jimmy Doumit, Bharati Prasad, “Sleep Apnea in Type 2 Diabetes”, American Diabetes Association, 2016
  • [3] Alejandro Castaneda, Edgar Jauregui-Maldonado, Iqal Ratnani, Joseph Varon, Salim Surani,“Correlation Between Metabolic Syndrome and Sleep Apnea”, National Institutes of Health, 2018
  • [4] Apoor S. Gami, Eric J. Olson, Win K. Shen, R Scott Wright, Karla V. Ballman, Dave O. Hodge, Regina M. Herges, Daniel E. Howard, Virend K. Somers, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death: A Longitudinal Study of 10,701 Adults”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2013
  • [5] “Yes, You Can Die from Sleep Apnea. Carrie Fisher Did“, American Sleep Apnea Association, 2017
  • [6] “FAQs: Mandibular Advancement Device”, American Sleep Association
  • [7] “Can Your CPAP Make You Sick?“, Harvard Health, October 8, 2019
  • [8] “Philips Recalls Ventilators, Sleep Apnea Machines Due to Health Risks“, Reuters, June 14, 2021
  • [9] “CPAP Use for Sleep Apnea Hushes Cancer-related Genes“, University of Washington School of Medicine, April 10, 2014
Content Writer | + posts

Jill Zwarensteyn is a content writer for Sleep Advisor and is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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