Women and Sleep Apnea: At Greater Risk Than We Thought
While men are generally more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), many more women than previously thought suffer from OSA, and leaving it unchecked can have dire consequences on a woman’s cardiovascular health.
A recent women and sleep apnea study conducted by Dr. Francisco Campos-Rodriguez, director of the sleep-disordered breathing unit at Valme University Hospital in Seville, Spain, states that women with untreated severe OSA are three and a half times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women without OSA. However, the study also showed that women who treat their severe sleep apnea at night with a technique called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) significantly reduce their risk of heart attack-related deaths to about the same risk level as women without OSA.
Continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, is a treatment that uses mild air pressure to keep the breathing passages open. The mild pressure from CPAP can prevent airways from collapsing or blocking, thus reducing or eliminating snoring and frequent waking during the night.
The results of the study is a wake-up call to both patients and doctors because it is the first published set of results that link OSA to cardiovascular death in women, and that CPAP treatment can reduce OSA-related mortality risks. It also shines a light on the need for more research regarding sleep apnea and women, as well as the need for women to take their symptoms seriously, and not just consider OSA “a man’s disease.”
Understanding Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes a person’s breathing during sleep to be paused. The pauses generally last 10 to 20 seconds, and in severe cases, can occur hundreds of times a night. With obstructive sleep apnea, the airway is blocked and/or collapses while sleeping. Air obstructed by the blockage can cause loud snoring and interrupted sleep.
As a result of the paused breathing and/or snoring, many sleep apnea sufferers wake throughout the night and spend more time in light sleep, rather than deep, restful REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness, and can negatively affect job performance, mood, reflexes and concentration.
Over time, untreated sleep apnea can also lead to cardiovascular health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, as well as weight gain and diabetes.
Some Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
So how do you know you may have obstructive sleep apnea? Some common symptoms include snoring, paused breathing during sleep and excessive sleepiness during the day. Increased blood pressure is another sign you may have sleep apnea.
While sleep apnea is more common in men, OSA increases in women after age 50. According to the National Sleep Foundation, one in four women over age 65 have sleep apnea.
Being overweight also increases a woman’s risk of having sleep apnea. Menopausal women are three and a half times more likely to get OSA, possible due to reduced amounts of progesterone.
To read a summary of “Risk for Death From Cardiovascular Disease in Women With Obstructive Sleep Apnea,” go to the Annals of Internal Medicine.
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