Obstructive sleep apnea linked to heart disease, especially in women

The study found OSA was associated with worse heart problems in women than men.

November 29, 2018, 7:27 PM

Snoring is something most of us have to deal with, whether it’s us or our significant other. But can this nuisance have an effect on our heart health? For women, the answer might be yes, according to a new study.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a severe form of snoring. It occurs when throat muscles relax and block the airway during sleep. This is what causes the loud snoring we’re all familiar with, but what makes it different is it also causes a person to gasp for air during sleep — disrupting deep sleep — as well as dry mouth, irritability and daytime fatigue.

Now, a new study from the Radiological Society of North America and the University of Munich in Germany, suggests OSA may increase risk of heart disease. Results showed that both men and women with OSA were more likely to have enlarged walls in the heart’s left ventricle — the chamber of the heart that pumps blood through the body. This forces the heart to work harder, which in turn increases risk for heart disease.

OSA has been associated with left ventricle dysfunction for some time, but this study allowed researchers to see it in real time through an MRI.

Though both men and women with OSA showed signs of left ventricle dysfunction, it was women who showed a more significant difference when compared to people who didn’t snore, the study found. This suggests that women may be affected earlier and potentially more easily than men.

The study evaluated heart MRIs from over 4,000 people who did not have any known heart problems. The MRI information was obtained from the UK Biobank, an international pool of data that follows the health of over half a million people in an effort to learn more about preventing and treating disease. For the study they asked people to self-report if they snore, do not snore, or have a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea.

Treating OSA is possible. It normally begins with lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, and sleeping in ways that will help you breathe more easily.

The researchers urge anyone who deals with severe snoring to see a doctor to learn more.

Dr. Sumir Shah is an emergency medicine physician in New York City and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.