Can Sleep Apnea Cause Death?

By Paul A. Achoa

Millions of Americans suffer from sleep apnea, which leads them to wake frequently throughout the night. Unfortunately, more and more studies are suggesting that sleep apnea can cause death both directly and indirectly.

Sudden Death

OSA gained a lot of attention when Hall of Fame NFL player, Reggie White died in his sleep at age 43. Although experts ultimately attributed his death to cardiac and pulmonary sarcoidosis, they speculated that sleep apnea might have been partly to blame. Although rare, experts agree that it is possible for a sleep apneic to die in his or her sleep due to a lack of oxygen.

Long-term Health Risks

More and more studies suggest that OSA could ultimately kill sufferers by gradually damaging their health. This dangerous sleep disorder has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and dementia, all of which can affect mortality. Furthermore, a recent study suggests that sleep apneics are at a five times greater risk of developing cancer than those who do not suffer from the disorder.

How Many People Have OSA?

While it’s clear that sleep apnea can cause death, it’s not necessarily clear how many people suffer from the sleep disorder. According to one prominent researcher, as much as 85 percent of so-called “clinically significant” sleep apneics have yet to be diagnosed. This is leading some to call OSA a silent killer, especially since many people don’t even know they have the problem in the first place.

What Can People Do?

If you are experiencing common symptoms associated with OSA, including snoring, daytime fatigue and frequent waking, a sleep physician can help. Generally, you will be asked to do an overnight sleep study; however, some physicians are now using at-home sleep studies that prove just as reliable. If you are positively diagnosed, you have a pair of options: most patients receive CPAP treatments, which provide a constant source of oxygen throughout the night; on the other hand, some patients find relief when they use an oral appliance, which is used to clear the airway by adjusting the jaw.

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