Sleep Apnea: Daytime Sleepiness Signals Heart Risk

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Snoring sucks — but it’s far from the worst sign of sleep apnea. A new study published in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine shows that adults with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) who experience excessive daytime sleepiness have a significantly higher risk for cardiovascular disease.

Conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, this study on sleep apnea — a condition that affects about 22 million Americans and is characterized by, yes, snoring, but also pauses in breathing while snoozing — divided people with moderate-to-severe OSA (those who have 15 or more episodes per hour) into four sub-groups based on whether they experience:

  • Disturbed sleep,
  • Minimal sleepiness during the day,
  • Moderate sleepiness during the day, or
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day.

While previous research has linked sleep apnea with increased heart disease risk, this study, which involved a 12-year follow-up, illuminated the increased dangers for those with extreme daytime sleepiness. Compared to the other sub-groups, participants in the excessive category were:

  • More than three times more likely to be diagnosed with heart failure
  • About twice as likely to experience a heart attack, heart failure, stroke, or cardiovascular-related death during the follow-up period
  • The only sub-group that had higher rates of cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study

According to the researchers, the results of this study suggest the clinical importance of OSA symptoms like daytime sleepiness.