Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has been linked to a number of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, heart failure, insomnia, and erectile dysfunction. These health concerns led researchers to investigate the link between sleep apnea and risk of death, heart problems, stroke, and cancer using data collected over a 20-year period. Their findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2014.
Sleep data was collected using a home-monitoring device that assessed snoring and sleep apnea among Australian men and women between November and December 1990. Health outcomes were determined from hospital and death records. Data from 1981 to 1990 was used as a baseline, while data from 1991 to 2010 was used to determine outcomes. Sleep apnea and follow-up data from 393 adult men and women was used in the final analysis.
The health problems linked to OSA
Researchers found that those with moderate to severe sleep apnea had a higher risk of death, cancer, and stroke compared to individuals without sleep apnea. Furthermore, this increased risk was not explained by known leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease or cancer such as high blood pressure, high body mass index scores, obesity, and smoking.
The authors of the study pointed out that although sleep apnea is typically thought to increase risk of death through cardiovascular disease, their findings did not find a statistically significant increased risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease among individuals with the sleep disorder.
The researchers concluded that health problems related to OSA appear to stem from a combination of cancer and cardiovascular disease (particularly stroke). The good news is that researchers stated that effective sleep apnea treatment could reduce these risks — in fully adjusted data models, mild sleep apnea was associated with a halving of the risk of death.
Is this the first study to link OSA with cancer?
No. A 2012 study that analyzed data collected from 1,522 Wisconsin state employees between the ages of 30 and 66 over a period of 22 years found that cancer mortality was twice as common among those with an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) of between 15 and 29.9 and almost five times higher among those with an AHI of 30 or above compared to healthy controls.
A Spanish study published in 2013 followed 4,910 adults for an average of four-and-a-half years and found that increased overnight hypoxia was associated with increased cancer incidence among men and those under 65 years of age.
As commentators have pointed out, if OSA is an independent risk factor for cancer and cancer mortality, such a finding has enormous public health significance — particularly when we consider that OSA has already been linked to four of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States (heart disease, stroke, accidental death, and diabetes).
The importance of OSA diagnosis and treatment
These studies further support the importance of seeking and adhering to OSA treatment. Studies have found that CPAP treatment can increase quality of life and life expectancy due to a decreased risk of heart attacks, stroke, and car crashes. Although further studies are needed, it is possible that CPAP treatment may also reduce the risk of cancer and death from cancer.
If you recognize any of the symptoms of OSA, or are struggling with your prescribed treatment, it is important to speak with your doctor.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.