Sleep Apnea: Serious as a Heart Attack
When people have heart attacks, they most often have them during the day, usually between 6 a.m. and noon. Doctors believe that is because for most people the morning is a high-stress time of day. When someone has a nighttime heart attack it signifies that something unusual has happened because it is a time when the heart should be at rest. Now in a recent report, obstructive sleep apnea is being linked to nighttime heart attacks.
For years, Dr. Virend Somers, a cardiologist from the Mayo Clinic, has suspected that sleep apnea is to blame for nighttime heart attacks and strokes. In fact, more than a decade ago Somers and his colleagues showed that obstructive sleep apnea has a powerful effect on the sympathetic nervous system, and causes a high increase in the flow of adrenaline, high blood pressure and a lack of oxygen.
His report last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology is based on years of study in which Somers and his colleagues studied 92 people hospitalized after heart attacks. The vast majority of those who suffered heart attacks at night had undiagnosed sleep apnea. “So, perhaps sleep apnea is acting as a trigger for night-time heart attacks.” Somers said.
Although not considered conclusive since it was not a controlled study, this is just another of example of several studies that have shown that sleep apnea and cardiac problems are linked. A number of years ago the largest study in this area showed thousands of people with sleep apnea who refused treatment had 2 to 4 times an increased risk of cardiac events. Somers’ study is different in that it makes the timing connection, allowing physicians to suspect sleep apnea when a nighttime heart attack occurs.
Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep, and unless a spouse makes the individual aware that they gasp for breath when waking from an episode, often the sleep apnea sufferer isn’t aware of the problem. Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which are common symptoms, are sometimes not connected in the sleep apnea sufferer’s mind so the disorder can go undiagnosed for years. Once it is diagnosed however, sometimes lifestyle modifications such as losing weight and quitting smoking can be beneficial and there are also devices available that successfully treat apnea by keeping the airways while the patient sleeps.
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