Connection Between Heart Disease and Sleep Apnea Likely an Even Greater Health Risk for Overweight and Obese Alabamans

According to a recent statement published jointly by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology in the academic journal Circulation, studies have shown that there is a very strong connection between sleep apnea and heart diseases, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, stroke, and heart failure.

Although the physical and mental consequences of untreated sleep apnea have been known for a while, the statement in Circulation says that “large-scale studies should be conducted to determine the exact link between sleep apnea and heart disease,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Sleep apnea is a chronic sleep disorder wherein a person experiences long pauses in breathing while asleep, usually lasting about 10 to 20 seconds each, with individual pauses possibly occurring hundreds of times per night. When the person begins breathing again, he or she often gasps for breath and jolts awake momentarily, disrupting the REM cycle and preventing the person from getting restful sleep.

The immediate consequences of sleep apnea are fairly obvious — sufferers often have a hard time concentrating during the day, feel fatigued no matter how much sleep they get, and tend to wake up with headaches.

The long-term effects of a lack of sleep, however, aren’t as easy to spot — but can be fatal if the disorder is left untreated, especially when compounded with additional medical conditions.

Specifically, the connection between sleep apnea and heart conditions could produce even more severe consequences for sufferers who are overweight; on the other hand, the same connection could be what’s causing obesity rates to skyrocket, especially among American youths.

Sheena Gregg, the assistant director of the department of health promotion and wellness at the University of Alabama, has studied adult and child obesity for many years, including her time spent as the chair of the Alabama Obesity Task Force.

Making announcements and warnings (such as the recent statement in Circulation) is helpful, Gregg states, but for a state like Alabama where the majority of the population is overweight, promoting healthy lifestyles and making them more accessible to people will be more effective than a simple warning.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 69% of adults in Alabama are overweight, and more than 15% of all young children in the state are overweight. Nearly one-quarter of adolescents in Alabama do not exercise on a regular basis, and more than 37% state that they watch at least three hours of television on a regular night.

Sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy foods seem to be main causes of obesity throughout Alabama, for both adults and children alike, and overweight individuals are already more likely to experience heart conditions. Add in the problem of untreated sleep apnea, and a person’s chance of of developing heart disease is three times as great.

“I wish I knew what the perfect answer was in how to address [Alabama’s obesity problem],” Gregg states. Although individuals may not give much attention to the recent statement in Circulation, she hopes that physicians will put more effort into warning patients of both obesity and sleep apnea consequences.

“We still have to see what we need to do to make them care.”