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Ask the Expert: How Does Sleep Affect Heart Health?

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The quality of your sleep affects your heart health and in turn, your heart health can affect the quality of your sleep.

Shana Ray, M.D. Shana Ray, M.D.
Sees patie​​nts at Marshfield Clinic Chippewa, Eau Claire, Menomonie and Rice Lake Centers

Much research has been done about the relationship between sleep apnea and heart health. The relationship is becoming more recognized, and we are learning about its impact on heart health and the potential for heart problems including stroke.

Sleep apnea typically causes the telltale loud snoring, snorts and labored breathing that may disturb others trying to sleep. The body is not getting enough oxygen. At a certain point, the body responds to reduced oxygen levels with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. With undiagnosed sleep apnea, this response can happen repeatedly throughout the night.

Although the exact cause is not fully known, the interruption of adequate oxygen is thought to be a significant factor for increased risk of heart problems. We do know that people with sleep apnea are at increased risk of heart attack, heart arrhythmia and atrial fibrillation, and at increased risk for developing heart failure and high blood pressure. Sleep apnea seems to occur more often in men, but also does affect women.

An estimated 20 percent of the population may have sleep apnea. Often people who have sleep apnea are not aware of it, especially if they live alone. Snoring is the most noticeable symptom.

Sleep apnea symptoms to watch for include:

  • Abnormal daytime sleepiness
  • Poor concentration or memory difficulties
  • Morning headaches because of low oxygen levels during the night
  • Frequent waking up during the night

Untreated sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of high blood pressure, a leading causes of stroke. Sleep apnea can make it even more difficult for to control blood sugar levels and increases the risk of stroke in people with diabetes that is not optimally treated or controlled. Smoking increases the risk further. Untreated sleep apnea also increases the risk for developing depression, anxiety and memory problems.

Reversing the cause and effect, heart disease can contribute to sleep problems, such as abnormal breathing patterns that occur in people with heart failure. If you have a history of high blood pressure, heart attack, heart disease, a pacemaker, heart failure, atrial fibrillation or stroke, ask your doctor about sleep apnea.

Anyone who snores and doesn’t feel rested during the day should talk with his or her doctor about a referral to a sleep specialist. A sleep study can reveal sleep apnea or other sleep disorders that can keep you from getting the healthful sleep you need for your heart, mind and body.​​