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The Health Risks Of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnoea can have some serious effects, not only on the brain but also on other parts of the body.

Image by Alex Rensen  via Flickr


One of the most common complaints about sleep apnoea is memory loss. Many patients can be sharp as a button but then have trouble with things like remembering names or always losing their keys. Things can get worse when these patients gain weight and their snoring worsens, too. These patients are typically placed on a CPAP machine for their sleep apnoea and find that their memories improve greatly.

Let’s take a look at the three types of sleep apnoea and their effects on brain function.

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnoea

Obstructive sleep apnoea is the first kind of sleep apnoea. The condition requires that during breathing, a person’s airflow is either partially or completely blocked. The airway seems to collapse to an extent. What happens is that the patient tries to breathe despite an obstruction and then wakes up. Once the air passes through the narrowed airway, the movement results in loud snoring. The risk factors for obstructive sleep apnoea include smoking, age and obesity. Sleeping on your back can also result in this type of sleep apnoea.

  1. Central Sleep Apnoea

CSA tends to occur when the part of the brain that should be signalling the muscles to breathe fails to pass on the message. So the body tries to breathe but it can’t do so normally. Often this kind of sleep apnoea is a side effect of another medical problem. A diseased or deformed cervical spine, illnesses that result in nerves degenerating or bulbar poliomyelitis, primary hypoventilation syndrome and diseases of the brainstem can all result in CSA. Chronic opiate use depresses the action of your brain’s respiratory control centre and this can also result in CSA and even death.

  1. Mixed Sleep Apnoea

With this type of apnoea, patients are sometimes thought to have some form of heart disease.

Complications of Untreated Sleep Apnoea

One of the complications of untreated sleep apnea is hypoxemia where blood oxygen levels tend to drop. The higher blood carbon dioxide levels are referred to as hypercapnia. Hypoxemia tends to cause the skin of patients to take on a bluish tint – a condition known as cyanosis.

Our brain cells require a constant oxygen supply in order for us to stay alive and they could die during hypoxemia in sleep apnoea. Prolonged cases of hypoxemia can result in death. Brain damage will lead to noticeable disturbance of mood, such as impairment of memory and depression.

What’s more, hypoxemia can cause seizures even in patients who don’t suffer from epilepsy. A disorder known as metabolic acidosis – the presence of excess acid in the fluids in the body has also been detected in those patients who have suffered from sleep apnoea for a long time and it is thought to be as a result of frequent hypercapnia that happens during sleep.

Sleep apnoea doesn’t just increase the heart rate, it also risks high blood pressure, called hypertension, congestive heart failure, stroke and cardia arrhythmia or arrest. These risks of cardiovascular problems can be particularly high in those patients who has coronary heart disease.

This hypertension caused by OSA tends to be different from ordinary high blood pressure as the level of pressure fails to drop when the patient is sleeping.

Patients who suffer from sleep apnoea also tend to be at risk of heartburn, obesity, gastrointestinal reflux, diabetes and erectile dysfunction, so it’s not just the brain this disorder has a major effect on.

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