Sleep apnea may hold hidden dangers for women

Women may be more likely to have their sleep apnea misdiagnosed because their symptoms are subtler than men. Researchers at UCLA School of Nursing found that the body’s autonomic responses—blood pressure control, heart rate, sweating—are weaker in people with sleep apnea, particularly in women. However, men are much more likely to be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea than women.

The UCLA team conducted a study using 94 men and women. Thirty-seven of them were newly diagnosed and untreated with obstructive sleep apnea and 57 were healthy people to act as a control. The three groups of participants completed three challenges while having their heart rate measured: The Valsalva maneuver, where they exhaled hard while keeping their mouth closed; a hand-grip challenge, where they squeezed hard with one hand; and a cold-pressure challenge, where the right foot is placed in near-freezing water for a minute.

Participants with sleep apnea displayed heart rate responses with lower amplitude, delayed onset, and slower rate changes compared to the healthy controls. These deficiencies were more pronounced in women, which could mean women are at higher risk of developing heart disease.

Said lead researcher Paul Macy: "We now know that sleep apnea is a precursor to bigger health issues. And for women in  particular, the results could be deadly."

The research team is examining whether the standard continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment for sleep apnea will aid in autonomic responses. CPAP is a machine that helps people with sleep apnea breathe easier during sleep. The team noted that more than 20 million Americans now have sleep apnea.

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