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Sleep apnea cuts oxygen supply

Disorder tied to cardiovascular disease

If you snore, sleep a lot during the day or experience any number of seemingly unrelated physical and emotional signs, you may need more than a warm glass of milk at bedtime and an earplugs-wearing bedmate.

You may have sleep apnea, a disorder in which you stop breathing throughout the night.

“Sleep apnea is implicated in cardiovascular diseases, vascular diseases, endocrinological diseases like diabetes,” says Dr. Won Lee, medical director of the Sleep and Breathing Disorder Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

“The best way to think of it is this: When patients have sleep apnea, there’s a narrowing of airways, which causes no airflow and therefore no oxygen is delivered to the lungs,” he says.

“I have some who stop breathing 100 times per hour. I’m flabbergasted, blown away.”

Apnea and other sleep disorders can be diagnosed in a sleep lab, where patients spend one to two nights being observed. Treatment is often nightly use of a machine called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), which restores oxygen flow.

“It’s literally night and day between before and after … they feel more refreshed and clearly this has benefits, time after time,” Lee says.

The machine can be tricky to get used to wearing. But Lee encourages patients to keep trying, citing a study of 1,000 Spanish men published in 2005.

“Those with severe apnea had double the risk of death, of major cardiovascular events,” he says. “Most encouraging were those who wore the CPAP consistently for four hours, 70 percent of the time and were monitored twice a year. They ended up having their cardiovascular events back to what’s normal for the general population.”