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Sleep apnea can be deadly

June 27, 2017

It’s not often that you hear of sleep apnea as the cause of death, but that was the case recently when the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office revealed that Carrie Fisher, who rose to fame as Princess Leia in "Star Wars," died of sleep apnea and other contributing factors, including heart disease.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes your breathing to stop or get very shallow. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more an hour.

Apnea health risks

While rarely the direct cause of death, Dr. Karin Johnson, medical director, Sleep Program, Baystate Medical Center, said that sleep apnea can seriously affect your health if left untreated. The combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation can result in:

• Increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and diabetes
• Increased risk of, or worsen, heart failure
• Making arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, more likely.

“Sleep apnea, especially when severe, doubles the risk of sudden death in sleep. Certain factors like sedative medications and alcohol or anesthesia make patients less likely to arouse when they stop breathing, which can worsen the apnea and cause the oxygen to drop more which can cause stress on the heart and brain,” said Dr. Johnson.

Treating sleep apnea

“Treating sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure, which we call CPAP, weight loss or sometimes by sleeping on the side can eliminate these risks,” said Dr. Johnson.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes your airway to collapse or become blocked during sleep. Normal breathing starts again with a snort or choking sound. People with sleep apnea often snore loudly. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

Snoring not the only symptom

About 25% of patients with sleep apnea have daytime sleepiness, but most have more subtle symptoms:

- Attention or memory problems
- Fatigue
- Frequent urination
- Headaches on awakening
- Heartburn at night
- Irritability of anxiety
- Waking at night.

Those most at risk for sleep apnea are overweight, male, have a small upper airway, or have a family history of apnea.

The treatment of choice for OSA is pressurized air that flows continuously or intermittently into the sleeper’s throat and prevents their airway from collapsing. Positive airway pressure machines are used with a variety of masks that fit over the nose, or both the nose and mouth.

To make an appointment

Millions of people suffer from undiagnosed sleep problems, blaming their exhaustion on lack of sleep and stress. But most sleep disorders can be treated, if they are first properly diagnosed. The Baystate Regional Sleep Program offers in-home and in-hospital sleep studies at several Baystate Health locations.

To make an appointment, call Baystate Medical Center Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Center at 413-794-5600, Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center in Ware at 413-967-2527, and Baystate Franklin Medical Center at 413-773-2727.

For more information, visit baystatehealth.org/sleep.