Q. I’ve heard that I’m more likely to develop heart disease because I have sleep apnea. Why is this?
A. As many as one in four adults experiences sleep apnea, which refers to brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea are known to have an elevated risk of heart disease.
In a study published in Science Translational Medicine in 2016, researchers set out to learn why this occurs by analyzing cells from inside the blood vessels of 76 people with sleep apnea and 52 people without the condition.
They found that a protein that protects the body’s cells from inflammation was in the wrong location in people with sleep apnea. That protein, CD59, is found in two spots in cells: on the surface and inside. People with sleep apnea have more of the protein on the inside of the cell (the nonbeneficial, or "wrong" location) instead of on the cell surface (the beneficial, or "right" location).
As a result, people with sleep apnea had larger deposits of inflammatory proteins that can damage the blood vessels and lead to heart attacks.
What’s more, people with sleep apnea who were also taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs had CD59 profiles similar to those of people without sleep apnea.
Although the research is too preliminary for doctors to begin prescribing statin drugs specifically for sleep apnea, this might be another benefit if you’re already taking them.