Sleep Apnea: A Noisy Stroke Risk Factor that Is Not Always Heard

By Jennifer Rose V. Molano, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
Sleep Specialist, UC Memory Disorders Center

“Love your heart. Love your brain,” declares the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.  To love your heart and brain, optimizing your blood pressure, controlling cholesterol levels and maintaining a healthy weight are all important.

But there is another risk factor, and that is obstructive sleep apnea. Both men and women are more likely to develop strokes and heart disease if obstructive sleep apnea is left untreated.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that is associated with partial or complete closure of the airways during sleep. This leads to snoring and/or breathing stoppages, known as “apneas.”  The effects of obstructive sleep apnea may be obvious and debilitating.  Issues such as chronic sleepiness, poor concentration and morning headaches that can interfere with daytime functioning are a few of the symptoms.

However, some effects of obstructive sleep apnea are not as obvious. If the airways close during sleep, oxygen levels can drop, and sleep becomes disrupted.  Low oxygen levels and sleep disruption lead to poor sleep quality and daytime functioning. And they also cause stress on the body that can create stroke risk factors such as abnormal heart rhythms and increased blood pressure. In stroke survivors, untreated obstructive sleep apnea also places a person at higher risk of having another stroke.

If you snore or struggle with daytime sleepiness, or if your breathing stops when you are sleeping, you should be evaluated by a sleep medicine specialist who can determine whether you qualify for a sleep study. During a sleep study, which is performed overnight, a technician monitors your breathing, heart rate and oxygen levels during sleep. Monitoring is required to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, which is defined by having at least five abnormal breathing events per hour associated with decreased oxygen levels during sleep.

The good news is that obstructive sleep apnea is treatable. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment is the first option and works by delivering pressurized room air through a mask to keep the airways open when sleeping at night. Other options, such as sleeping on your side, an oral appliance or surgery can be considered, depending on the degree of obstructive sleep apnea.

“Love your heart. Love your brain.” To prevent, treat and beat strokes, also remember to get evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea.

Learn more

Dr. Jennifer Molano’s profile >>
Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene >>

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