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This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

If you suffer from undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea, the condition could take a toll on your heart health. With sleep apnea, the person experiences a pause in his or her breathing that can last from a few seconds to minutes during sleep, often occurring five to 30 times per hour.When the person starts breathing again, a gasp, a loud snort, or a choking sound often accompanies it. Besides potentially leading to poor-quality slumber, fatigue, and drowsy driving the next day, sleep apnea can cause serious damage to your heart.

It has been linked with heart arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), atrial fibrillation (a common type of irregular heartbeat), heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes, most likely because sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure. When you stop breathing while you sleep, your heart rate drops, and then your involuntary reflexes make you startle into a micro-arousal, which causes your heart rate to accelerate quickly and makes your blood pressure to rise. In addition, sleep apnea can lead to repeated episodes of lower oxygen levels in the blood, increases in carbon dioxide levels, pressure changes in the chest, and increased inflammation markers in the body, all of which can wreak havoc on heart function.

Over time, these physiological changes may lead to conditions such as chronic high blood pressure, a thickening of the heart walls (because of the increased workload that’s forced upon the heart), and a stiffening of the heart. All of these changes increase the risk of heart arrhythmias and/or compromise the heart’s ability to function efficiently.

Consider this risk another compelling reason to see your doctor if your spouse tells you that you snore heavily and/or have periods where your breathing pauses and then you gasp. Also, if you have excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue, restless sleep, or trouble staying asleep, or have difficulty concentrating, these could be signs of sleep apnea.

The good news is that the sleep disorder can be treated effectively—which can, in turn, reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular complications—but only if you see your doctor and get a proper diagnosis. Your mind, mood, and heart health may depend on it. So don’t wait to make your appointment. A healthier outlook for your heart may be just around the corner.

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