No matter how often we may joke about it in public, snoring is no laughing
matter. If your – or your partner’s - snoring is actually sleep apnoea, it
could be a matter of life and death. Lesley Dobson reports
Most of us rely on a good night’s sleep to recharge our batteries. But for
around 3.5% of men and 1.5% of women, sleep apnoea, a condition we may have
without realising it, could be making our beds a battleground.
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), to give its full name, is a serious
condition where the muscles of the throat relax during sleep and totally
block the sleeper’s airways. An apnoea usually lasts for around 10 seconds,
during which time the sleeper suffers from lack of oxygen.
Symptoms usually include loud snoring, laboured and noisy breathing and
possibly snorting during apnoea. People with OSA may have no idea of what’s
going on while they sleep. However, these repeated interruptions to their
sleep can make them irritable, depressed, very sleepy and with headaches and
Sleep apnoea has been linked with a risk of stroke for men in the past. Now
a landmark study from the USA has shown that the link is much stronger than
previously thought. And the study has shown for the first time that there’s
also a link between OSA and a higher stroke risk in women.
Researchers from the Sleep Heart Health Study carried out the research with
over 5,400 participants aged 40 and older, in nine medical centres in the
USA. None had suffered a stroke before the study started. The researchers
followed their subjects for an average of nine years.
The results showed that even men with mild sleep apnoea are at risk of
stroke. And as the OSA gets worse, so the risk of stroke rises. Men with
moderate to severe sleep apnoea were nearly three times more likely to have
a stroke than men without sleep apnoea or with only mild OSA. Women, on the
other hand, only had a significantly increased risk of stroke if they had
One reason for this difference between men and women may be that men are
more likely to develop OSA at a younger age. "Our findings provide
compelling evidence that obstructive sleep apnoea is a risk factor for
stroke, especially in men," says Susan Redline, professor of medicine,
paediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at Case Western Reserve
University in Cleveland and lead author of the paper. "Overall, the
increased risk of stroke in men with sleep apnoea is comparable to adding 10
years to a man’s age. Importantly, we found that increased stroke risk in
men occurs even with relatively mild levels of sleep apnoea."
"Research on the effects of sleep apnoea not only increases our
understanding of how lapses of breathing during sleep affect our health and
wellbeing, but it can also provide important insight into how cardiovascular
problems such as stroke and high blood pressure develop," said Michael J
Twery, director of the NIH National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, an
office administered by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
"These new data confirm the previous findings of an association between
obstructive sleep apnoea and stroke, raising the possibility that we may be
able to prevent some strokes by effectively treating obstructive sleep
apnoea," says Dr Andrew Cummin, Sleep Centre Director at Imperial College
"Other health risks of particular concern include high blood pressure and
irregular heart rhythms. Sleep apnoea sufferers have also been found to be
seven times more likely to have a car accident and may even fall asleep
behind the wheel.
"If you or your partner are prone to heavy snoring in the night and feel
tired constantly, it is important to ask your GP to refer you to a sleep
centre. If you are diagnosed, you may be provided CPAP therapy, recommended
by NICE as the gold standard treatment for sleep apnoea. The device delivers
pressurised air through a mask that is worn each night in order to keep the
There’s more news for women on the stroke front. Another study, reported in
Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, has shown that regular
walking can reduce your risk of stroke. Compared to women who didn’t do any
walking, women who walked at a brisk pace – three miles an hour or faster –
had a 37% lower risk of any type of stroke. Women who walked for two hours
or more a week had a 30% lower risk of any type of stroke.
The study followed 39,315 female health professionals (average age 54) for
11.9 years. All were taking part in the Women’s Health Study. Every two or
three years the women reported their physical activity for the past year.
During that time 579 women had a stroke.
Not sure if you’re walking at a brisk pace? Jacob Sattelmeir from Harvard
School of Public Health in Boston Massachusetts and lead author of the paper
suggests possibly using a heart rate monitor, or for a rough estimate, the
'talk test'. "For a brisk pace you should be able to talk but not able to
sing. If you cannot talk, slow down a bit. If you can sing, walk a bit
"150,000 people in the UK will have a stroke every year and it is the UK's
third biggest killer," says Andrea Lane of The Stroke Association. "There
are several known risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure,
smoking and obesity; however research is continually being undertaken to
investigate other potential contributing factors and causes.
"Studies in the past have suggested that there may be a link between sleep
apnoea and stroke. The NHLBI's study is the largest to date and it provides
evidence to support this link. The Stroke Association would welcome further
research on this topic and investigate whether treating sleep apnoea could
reduce a person's risk of stroke.
"Everyone can help reduce their risk of stroke by making simple lifestyle
changes, such as having regular blood pressure checks, giving up smoking,
reducing alcohol intake, improving their diet and getting plenty of
Source : Saga.co.uk