People with undiagnosed sleep apnea may be suffering heart damage as well. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
People with undiagnosed sleep apnea may be suffering heart damage as well. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Has your spouse or a family member ever told you that you alternate between snoring and gasping for breath while you sleep?

For the sake of your heart, it may be time to seek a solution.

Researchers often identify a connection between obstructive sleep apnea and a number of cardiovascular problems.

Wael Berjaoui, MD, a pulmonologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group, describes sleep apnea as an interference of airflow during sleep. This potentially serious disorder is characterized by breathing that repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, and it’s usually associated with a reduction in blood oxygen saturation.

These episodes can prevent restful sleep, often waking a sleeper as he gasps for air.

But there’s also a hidden impact on the heart.

This condition can worsen coronary artery disease. Research has found that patients who have sleep apnea are more likely to have life-threatening outcomes when they have a heart attack.

“Imagine waking up and feeling like someone is trying to choke you. Of course your heart rate and blood pressure will increase,” Dr. Berjaoui said of the association between obstructive sleep apnea and the heart. “Your body thinks it is in distress.”

Research has shown that patients who undergo continuous positive airway pressure therapy will see a decrease in systolic blood pressure, Dr. Berjaoui said, which reduces the potential for progressive damage to arteries and veins, and in turn reduces the incidence of stroke, heart disease and heart failure.

Continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, is a treatment that uses mild air pressure, delivered through a lightweight mask, to keep the airways open during sleep.

CPAP treatment also can improve the health of people with heart rhythm problems, particularly those with an irregular heartbeat condition known as atrial fibrillation. Up to 80 percent of people with atrial fibrillation also may suffer from sleep apnea, Dr. Berjaoui said.

“It is much harder to control atrial fibrillation or cure it if you don’t treat the (apnea) first,” he continued. “It is important for patients who have cardiac conditions to be evaluated. …Even without all of the symptoms, a patient still could have sleep apnea and it can compromise their ability to effectively manage something like high blood pressure.”

If a patient requires more than two medications to control high blood pressure, for instance, there is at least a 7-in-10 chance the patient also suffers from sleep apnea, even if he doesn’t have the telltale symptoms of loud snoring or excessive daytime sleepiness.

And while there is an association between sleep apnea and cardiac conditions, Dr. Berjaoui pointed out it is not cause and effect.

The important takeaway: Sleep apnea can affect your ability to manage other conditions, including those affecting the heart.

Dr. Berjaoui said if you’re concerned about the impact of obstructive sleep apnea on your heart, you should talk to one of Spectrum Health’s sleep professionals. They can evaluate your sleep patterns in the sleep lab or in an at-home test.

Your heart is counting on it.