We all have a bad night’s sleep from time to time, but if you’re regularly missing out on good rest, it could have serious health consequences. Sometimes, however, you might not even notice anything is amiss—and that lack of awareness means you’ve failed to notice a major warning sign for your heart health. Doctors say that one nighttime habit in particular signals real trouble when it comes to heart disease. Read on to learn about this nocturnal red flag, and what you should do if you’re affected.
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If you snore, you might not even realize it—until a bed partner complains, that is. “Snoring is caused by vibrations in any area of the upper airway (the passageway from your nose and mouth down to your trachea),” says Nithin Adappa, MD, the surgical director of the Penn AERD Center and associate professor in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at Penn Medicine. “This can be from obstruction in the nasal passage, the soft palate, or the base of the tongue.”
Snoring often becomes more pronounced as we age, he adds, as the soft tissue in our airway tends to relax more when sleeping as we get older. The Mayo Clinic reports that these other factors can increase snoring: alcohol consumption, having a narrow airway, nasal problems, a family history of snoring or obstructive sleep apnea, and being overweight.
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Ask your bed partner—or record yourself—to figure out the intensity of your snoring. If it’s on the mild and intermittent side, you likely don’t have to worry about health concerns lurking beneath the surface. That said, heavy snoring could be a warning sign of sleep apnea, per Sleep Foundation. “Other signs of sleep apnea include waking up at night feeling as though you are gasping for air, excessive daytime sleepiness, excessive waking up at night, and a bed partner who notes periods of sleep where breathing appears to have stopped,” says Adappa.
Quick medical lesson: There are actually three forms of sleep apnea, according to Medical News Today. Those include central, obstructive, and complex. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form—affecting between 4 percent and 50 percent of the population.
“If a person has obstructive sleep apnea, they can have an increased risk of heart disease,” says Marilene B. Wang, MD, head and neck surgeon at UCLA Health. “The increased work of breathing during sleeping and stoppage of breathing (apnea) results in a drop in the oxygen level in the blood and strain on the heart.”
And it’s not just heart disease you have to worry about. “OSA, if left untreated, can lead to serious health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart problems, such as heart attack, heart failure, and enlarged heart,” says Dana L. Crosby, MD, department chair and director of otolaryngic allergy at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
More specifically, 2008 research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140 percent, the risk of stroke by 60 percent, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30 percent.
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When the snoring has become bothersome to you or your partner, it’s totally reasonable to see a doctor and ask about possible treatments, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes. If what we’re describing as sleep apnea sounds more like your current condition, then you should absolutely see a doctor now.
“If a doctor suspects sleep apnea, they will likely recommend a sleep study also known as a polysomnogram. Sleep studies are used to diagnose sleep apnea,” explains Crosby. “Once sleep apnea is diagnosed, another polysomnogram with a titration study can be done to determine the settings for a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). CPAP is a common device that is typically the first step to treat sleep apnea. This machine blows air in during sleep to help keep the airway open rather than allowing it to collapse.”
Nonsurgical treatments for OSA are similar to those for snoring in general. You could limit or avoid alcohol, try a wedge or body pillow, or treat nasal congestion you may have from a cold or allergies, according to a number of experts.
You could also lose weight. “As we lose weight, the walls of the throat and tongue become thinner and the breathing space enlarges,” explains Ofer Jacobowitz, MD, PhD, of ENT and Allergy Associates in New York City. “The opposite is also true, so today’s simple snorer may develop sleep apnea with weight gain.”
As for surgical treatments, those continue to advance with time. “In general surgery is done to reduce excess tissue like very enlarged tonsils, or long palates, or to straight structures in the nose,” says Crosby. “Surgeries are really only recommended for those in whom CPAP has been ineffective or for those who cannot tolerate the device. CPAP is currently the gold standard of treatment and is highly effective.”
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