Sleep Apnea and Sudden Death Are Connected

Published Online: Sunday, May 1, 2005

A study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (March 24, 2005), showed that adults with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are more prone to die unexpectedly from cardiac problems while they are asleep. The researchers based their findings on the death records of 112 participants. The participants died suddenly from cardiac causes after participating in sleep studies at the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorder Center between 1987 and 2003.

Of the 112 participants, 78 patients had been diagnosed with OSA. The results of the study indicated that sudden cardiac death occurred between midnight and 6 AM in 46% of the participants with OSA and 21% with other diagnoses. The pattern is not the same in the general population because 16% of cardiac deaths happen during sleep, noted the researchers.

The investigators discovered that death during sleep was connected with severity of OSA. They noted that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a treatment used for OSA. Although their research does not provide any conclusive evidence about CPAP's role in stopping sudden death during sleep, the researchers said the treatment is linked with several mechanisms that could lower the risk of sleep-apnea—induced heart disease.

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