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The Sleep Apnea-Heart Disease Connection

Posted by Joseph C. Yu, MD, FACC
Cardiologist, Holy Name Medical Center
Holy Name Medical Partners

Joseph C. Yu, MD, FACC, Cardiologist, Holy Name Medical Center

Chronic snoring has long provided a good-natured punch line for laughs in popular culture.

But one of its sources – obstructive sleep apnea – is no joke as it is associated with cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and other heart-related complications.

Sleep apnea is relatively common, afflicting as many as 18 million American adults, according to the Sleep Foundation. It is a disorder where breathing is repeatedly interrupted for at least 10 seconds during sleep. This occurs when muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open. That is more likely to happen if one is overweight, male and middle-aged. Snoring can be more severe for those who sleep on their backs, but can affect sleepers of all positions.

The interrupted sleep can cause low blood oxygen levels and result in lethargy, sleepiness, excessive fatigue, poor mood and memory problems during the day. But it also can lead to serious cardiovascular issues, such as atrial fibrillation. The irregular heartbeat that characterizes atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other cardiovascular complications.

Pay Attention to Warning Signs

It's important not to ignore signs – chronic snoring being chief among them - of sleep apnea. There are online surveys that patients and clinicians can use to determine if there might be a problem. Primary care doctors can and should broach the topic with patients. Those doctors can refer patients to a specialist for a sleep apnea test.

Holy Name's Center for Sleep Medicine offers overnight sleep studies within hotel-like accommodations. Several at-home testing devices for eligible patients - including WatchPAT - are offered for those who prefer to have a sleep study done in their own home. The home testing devices, as well as the sensors used in the Center for Sleep Medicine's studies, monitor the patient's heart rate, respiration, leg and eye movements, brain waves and oxygen circulation through the night.

Treatment Options

Dental devices or surgery might be recommended for some breathing issues. Weight loss can provide significant improvement for many patients. Avoiding alcohol and smoking also help. But continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy remains the gold standard for treatment of most sleep apnea. CPAP machines – that fit over the nose and mouth like a mask - use mild air pressure to keep the airways open throughout the night.

The masks take some getting used to – and more than a few patients balk at the treatment. But most report life-changing results in how they feel during the day after taking a few weeks to adjust to the CPAP at night. And, of course, the cardiovascular benefits are well worth the trouble of wearing, cleaning and otherwise maintaining the mask.

The cardiovascular implications of sleep apnea are huge – so it's important to be aggressive in discussing and treating the problem. The inconvenience of diagnosis and treatment pales compared to the positive changes – seen and unseen – that can result. You can both improve and lengthen your life with treatment while providing more peace of mind for your loved ones.

Joseph C. Yu, MD, FACC, is a board-certified interventional cardiologist, cardiologist and internist with practices in Paramus, Union City and Hackensack. He is a diplomate in adult comprehensive echocardiography and certified by the Board of Nuclear Cardiology. Dr. Yu is dedicated to cardiovascular research involving the prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease and has numerous publications in the field. To make an appointment with him, call 201-996-9244 or visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org.

Holy Name's Center for Sleep Medicine in Teaneck provides professional one-night sleep studies to diagnose a host of sleep disorders that affect patients' health. The studies can be done at the center, which features state-of-the-art hotel-like accommodations, or at the patient's home. The multidisciplinary sleep medicine team evaluates each patient and determines the most appropriate study based on the patient's individual needs, symptoms and overall health status. The Center can be reached at 201-833-7260.