By Lisa Collier Cool
Pop quiz: What’s the worst thing about snoring?
No, it’s not the annoying sounds that can get you thrown out of bed. The worst thing about snoring is the newly recognized threat to heart health it can represent. A growing body of research suggests that snoring may be harder on the heart than being overweight, smoking or having high cholesterol. And a new study, from Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital found that snoring can lead to dangerous changes in the carotid arteries in the neck that deliver blood to the brain.
Snoring can also be a sign of sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by brief, repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. These can happen hundreds of times each night, and cause a drop in the amount of oxygen in your blood. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that some 22 million Americans are affected.
Studies have linked sleep apnea to heart attacks, cancer, automobile accidents, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and depression plus an increased risk of death from any cause. Sleep apnea has long been regarded as a mostly-male problem, but a surprising new study from Sweden found that women are also at risk.
Here’s a rundown on the newfound dangers of snoring:
- Heart health: We’ve long known that sleep apnea presents a risk to heart health, but the study from the Henry Ford Hospital found that snoring itself (without sleep apnea) can lead to increased thickening in the linings of the carotid arteries that supply the brain with oxygenated blood. The researchers noted that this kind of thickening precedes hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) responsible for cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks and strokes. The Henry Ford researchers suggested that trauma and inflammation triggered by the vibrations of snoring could have caused the thickening they saw and urged people who snore to seek treatment.
- Cancer: Here, the evidence comes from three separate studies from
Spain. The first looked at more than 5,600 patients from seven sleep clinics and showed that those with sleep apnea whose oxygen saturation dipped below 90 percent at night had double the relative risk of death from cancer. These risks were highest in men and young people. The second study looked at sleep apnea patients treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy via a device that generates a stream of air to keep the upper airways open during sleep. Results showed an increased cancer risk in patients who didn’t use their CPAP devices consistently. The third study found that melanoma tumors grew more quickly in mice who breathed air with low oxygen levels similar to those that occur with sleep apnea. None of these studies prove that sleep apnea causes cancer, but they do document a disturbing association.
- Car Crashes: New research shows that people with sleep apnea are at twice the normal risk of being in an automobile accident and at three to five times the risk of being in a crash leading to personal injury. Canadian researchers who looked at data from nearly 1,600 people with and without sleep apnea found that even those with mild cases were at risk. They also found that daytime sleepiness, due to frequently interrupted sleep at night, was not to blame for the accidents.
- Increased Risk of Death: The eight-year long Sleep Heart Health Study (SHHS) supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found that moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea is associated with a 40 percent increased risk of death from any cause in middle age. The study also showed that men with sleep apnea between the ages of 40 to 70 had twice the risk of dying during the study than unaffected men. Earlier findings from this study showed that untreated sleep apnea is associated with increased risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart failure, and stroke; other studies have linked untreated sleep apnea with overweight and obesity, and diabetes.
Since snoring occurs when you’re in dreamland, complaints from your bed partner may be a tipoff that something’s wrong. Other signs of sleep apnea: feeling sleepy during the day, waking up with a headache, problems with memory and learning, not being able to concentrate, feeling irritable or depressed, having mood swings or personality changes; waking frequently to urinate and dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up.
To find out if snoring is due to sleep apnea, you may need a polysomnogram (PSG), an overnight test that involves attaching sensors to your scalp, face, chest, limbs, and a finger. While you sleep (at a sleep center), these sensors can pick up the amount of oxygen in your blood, air movement through your nose while you breathe, snoring, and chest movements (these show whether you’re making an effort to breathe).
For mild cases, losing weight, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills (both make it harder for your throat to stay open while you sleep), and learning to sleep on your side (instead of your back) may be all the treatment necessary. A mouthpiece to adjust the position of your lower jaw and tongue can be helpful, too.
For moderate to severe sleep apnea, a CPAP machine is the most common treatment.