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Understanding the link – How sleep apnea impacts heart health

Posted on November 14th, 2023

Sleep apnea is a condition characterized by interrupted breathing while a person sleeps. It affects millions of people worldwide and has varying degrees of severity. Sleep apnea has gained a lot of attention recently due to its significant impact on a person’s health. 

Beyond sleep apnea’s association with daytime fatigue and cognitive impairment, research shows a strong connection between sleep apnea and heart health. 

Below, you’ll learn more about this relationship and how sleep apnea can negatively affect a person’s cardiovascular system. 

But first…

What is sleep apnea? 

There are three types of sleep apnea: 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA)
  • Complex sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea

OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep, causing shallow breathing or breathing pauses, known as apneas, to occur. 

Central sleep apnea

CSA is less common than OSA. It occurs when the brain fails to transmit signals to the muscles in charge of breathing.

Complex sleep apnea

Complex sleep apnea is also referred to as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This type is a combination of OSA and CSA.

The hallmark of all types of sleep apnea is the repeated cessation of breathing during sleep, leading to intermittent drops in blood oxygen levels and fragmented sleep patterns. Sleep apnea is known for causing daytime drowsiness, but its long-term health consequences can be much worse. 

How does sleep apnea affect the cardiovascular system? 

Sleep apnea disrupts normal physiological processes during sleep. The recurrent dips in blood oxygen levels and subsequent sleep arousals can trigger certain physiological responses. 

They can activate the sympathetic nervous system and release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Reduced blood oxygen levels can also trigger the release of inflammatory markers, which can cause fatty deposits called plaque to accumulate in the arterial walls.

In turn, these physiological responses can lead to increased blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, and inflammation, all of which can increase the risk of the following cardiovascular diseases: 

  • Hypertension
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart failure

Additionally, the cyclical nature of sleep apnea, marked by periods of apnea followed by sudden awakenings, disrupts a person’s normal sleep-wake cycle. This disruption can upset hormone regulation, including hormones that control appetite and metabolism, potentially contributing to weight gain and obesity

Excess body weight, in turn, can exacerbate cardiovascular strain, which creates a dangerous feedback loop that further heightens the risk of heart-related complications.

How to treat sleep apnea and reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues 

Recognizing the potential cardiovascular risks associated with untreated sleep apnea underscores the importance of early detection and intervention. 

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy remains the gold standard for treating sleep apnea. However, oral appliance therapy may be a more comfortable treatment option for some patients. 

Oral appliance therapy involves the use of a custom-fit oral appliance worn during sleep that repositions the lower jaw and tongue to keep a person’s airway open as they sleep. 

Lifestyle modifications can also reduce sleep apnea symptoms and the adverse effects on heart health. These modifications include…

  • Weight management
  • Regular exercise
  • Avoiding alcohol and sedatives
  • Sleeping on the side instead of the back or stomach

Moreover, healthcare providers should emphasize the need for a multidisciplinary approach. For optimal patient outcomes, they should integrate the expertise of dentists, sleep specialists, and cardiologists to address the interplay between sleep apnea and cardiovascular health

By fostering greater awareness and promoting collaborative care, healthcare providers can implement tailored treatment strategies. That way, they can effectively reduce sleep apnea symptoms and lower patients’ risk of cardiovascular complications. 

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

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Healthy Sleep Revolution Podcast Cover

Healthy Sleep Revolution Podcast

Snoring? Tired all day? Trouble focusing?
So many think these symptoms are common in kids and adults when tired. Join us as we debunk some of these common myths and put the spotlight on Sleep Apnea. Discover what constitutes healthy sleep and how we can help ourselves and our kids get the best sleep ever.


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