Women With This Sleep Problem May Have Greater Cancer Risk

A new study found that women with sleep apnea may be more likely to develop cancer.

by Stephanie Stephens Health Writer

Getting enough good sleep is key to your health, thanks to sleep’s immune system-boosting and mood-perfecting effects. And when you’re not getting adequate sleep, you’re more susceptible to health problems—and now evidence is mounting that a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea, which impacts your sleep quality, raises the risk of cancer in women.

It's assumed that sleep apnea is a risk factor for cancer, or that both sleep apnea and cancer have common risk factors, including being overweight, according to a statement from Ludger Grote, adjunct professor and chief physician in sleep medicine at the University of Gothenberg, and author of the new study in European Respiratory Journal.

The scientists looked at data from 20,000 patients with obstructive sleep apnea, of which some 2% had cancer, and found a clear link between sleep apnea and cancer. The connection was strongest for women versus men—as much as two- to threefold for women whose sleep apnea was "pronounced." This is the first time gender has been so heavily examined in studies on the link between these conditions, Grote said.

But which cancers, specifically, are linked to sleep apnea? Well, the connection to melanoma has been most pronounced, Grote said, while strong breast and uterine cancer links are emerging too. As to why these two women’s cancers may be related to the sleep disorder, he cited a combo effect of female sex hormones and stress activation that occurs due to hypoxia in sleep apnea. Hypoxia is the state that occurs when the oxygen supply isn't enough for normal life functions.

More Risks of Sleep Apnea

During sleep apnea, breathing stops involuntarily. Obstructive sleep apnea is one of three kinds—the others are called central and mixed—and occurs when the airway is blocked due to soft tissue repeatedly collapsing and closing in the back of the mouth.

The American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) says breathing can stop repeatedly, even hundreds of times per night, which means oxygen isn't delivered to the body during that time. It's true in general that men have this condition more than women, especially African-American and Hispanic men.

Snoring can be a telltale sign, and people who snore can have sleep apnea without knowing it. Sleep apnea can cause daytime sleepiness, cause people to wake up gasping or trying to catch their breath at night, and may cause dry mouth and headaches, the association says. This is no small health problem, said to affect more than 18 million Americans.

This condition is related to more than just cancer, too. Per the ASAA, it's also a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and other problems, not to mention the potential risks of falling asleep at inopportune times, such as when driving.

What You Can Do for Sleep Apnea

Depending on how severe your sleep apnea is, treatments include weight loss and exercise, sleeping in a non-supine position—meaning not on your back—and avoiding alcohol. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices or, in severe cases, upper airway surgery may be appropriate.

If you think you have sleep apnea, usually considered a chronic disease, see your doctor, who can refer you to a sleep specialist if necessary. Getting good, sound sleep is crucial to your good health and overall well-being.

Stephanie Stephens
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a very experienced digital journalist, audio/video producer and host who covers health, healthcare and health policy, along with celebrities and their health, for a variety of publications, websites, networks, content agencies and other distinctive clients. Stephanie was accepted to THREAD AT YALE for summer 2018 to author and produce an investigative series. She is also active in the animal welfare community.