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A Woman’s Heart, Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease

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From time to time, my husband snores. Now, when I say snore, I mean a raising-the-dead-from-the-grave kind of S-N-O-R-E! He doesn’t do it every night (thank GOD!) but the last time it happened, I ended up sleeping on the couch while wearing a set of ear muffs designed to block out the sound of gun fire on the range. They were the only thing I found that blocked the sound enough for me to fall back asleep. In retrospect, it was probably a pretty comical sight that greeted him the next morning! Purely in retaliation, the dirty rat now claims that I snore as well.

If you (or someone you love) snores, then you know what I’m talking about. What you may not know is that snoring is one of the primary symptoms of sleep apnea. As it turns out, in addition to causing marital strife and general overall grumpiness from sleep deprivation the next day, sleep apnea may also puts you at an increased risk of heart disease.

A person with sleep apnea literally stops breathing while they are asleep as a result of throat obstructions. Although they may not remember doing so, the only way that they are able to start breathing again is to wake up. As a result of their constant cycle of waking-sleeping, a person with sleep apnea never reaches the “good” level of sleep; they never enter into a place of true rest and get that beneficial sleep at night.

The most common symptom of sleep apnea is really loud, chronic snoring. It may be worse when sleeping on your back although it can occur while sleeping on your side as well. The snoring may or may not be constant and some people may actually choke or gasp after a snoring episode. One of the big problems with snoring, of course, is that you usually don’t wake yourself up and your family members may be the first to notice the problem. Just because you snore, does not mean that you have sleep apnea. Other symptoms of sleep apnea may include unusual tiredness in the middle of the day, headaches (in the morning when you first wake up), night urination, difficulty concentrating (or learning) during the day, and mood swings, irritability, or depression. (Your significant other may also experience these symptoms because they aren’t sleeping either!) Persons with sleep apnea may also experience dry throats in the morning upon waking.

It’s easy to see how sleep apnea can contribute to mood swings and irritability. How sleep apnea affects your heart is not quite as transparent. Essentially, sleep apnea increases your risk of developing heart disease by:

• raising blood pressure -hypertension generally develops within four years of the onset of sleep apnea
• increasing constriction of blood vessels – constriction of blood vessels has been linked to the development of heart disease
• Increasing heart rates during sleep causing blood pressure spikes during rest

Some experts believe that as much as 50 percent of all sleep problems may be caused by stress. In addition to putting you at increased risk of heart disease and heart attack, lack of sleep is also linked to an increased risk of strokes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes. According to the Harvard Medical School, sleep apnea and heart disease is a two way street. Research indicates that heart failure may result in the development of sleep apnea and vice versa.

Although anyone may develop sleep apnea, it is more common in men with one in 25 middle-aged men and one in 50 middle aged women suffering from the disorder. Age also plays a factor with the numbers jumping to one in ten after age 65. You’re more likely to develop sleep apnea if you have a family history of the disorder or if your racial heritage is African-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander. Some physical characteristics such as enlarged tonsils in children or small airway passages may also contribute to the development of sleep apnea.

Since sleep apnea increases your risk of developing heart disease (and stroke), if you suspect that you may have sleep apnea talk it over with your physician. He may order a sleep study to monitor such things as brain activity during rest, breathing rate, sleeping heart rate, blood oxygen levels, eye movement and the amount of air you move through your lungs while sleeping. The treatment for sleep apnea varies depending on the underlying reason but may range from lifestyle changes to breathing devices to surgery.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a healthy heart.

Poor sleep habits: heart disease and sleep apnea, Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/sleep-habits

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_Signs.html

Sleep Disturbances: Hearts at Risk, Women’s Heart Foundation, http://www.womensheart.org/content/HeartDisease/sleep_disturbances.asp

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Rene A Mollor says...

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April 28, 2010 - 3:37am

Hi Susan.... Cheeky indeed to accuse a pregnant woman of such a deed!

You are so right on the need to get habitual snoring investigated. Regardless of your age/size, snoring is still one of the primary symptoms of sleep apnea. Losing sleep (or not getting the right kind of sleep) on a regular basis is so bad for us on many many levels.

I'm glad your husband sought treatment and that they were able to help him. My father has sleep apnea as well and both he and my mother are much happier (and well rested!) now that he's under treatment. Thanks for sharing your story!

April 12, 2010 - 10:52am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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