Snoring is something most of us have to deal with, whether it’s us or our significant other. But can this nuisance have a serious effect on women’s heart health?
According to a new study, the answer is yes.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a severe form of snoring, which occurs when throat muscles relax and block the airway during sleep.
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, and to note the differences between men’s and women’s results.
Women Have a Higher Risk
Though both men and women with OSA showed signs of left ventricle dysfunction, the study showed:
It was women who showed a more significant difference when compared to people who didn’t snore.
This suggests that women may be affected earlier and potentially more easily than men.
The researchers analyzed data associated with cardiac parameters in relation to diagnosed OSA and self-reported snoring using data from the UK Biobank.
The UK Biobank is an international health resource, open to researchers, that aims to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases.
The data were of 4,877 participants who had received a cardiac MRI scan. The scientists divided them into three groups: those with OSA, those with self-reported snoring, and those with neither.
When the researchers compared the snoring group with the group without sleep disorders, they found a striking difference in the left ventricular mass in women compared with men.
Increased left ventricular mass means that the heart needs to work harder to fulfill the body’s needs.
These patterns in people who self-reportedly snore may be an indication of undiagnosed OSA.
“We found that the cardiac parameters in women appear to be more easily affected by the disease and that women who snore or have OSA might be at greater risk for cardiac involvement.”
– Researcher Dr. Adrian Curta
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the walls of a person’s throat relax and narrow during sleep, blocking their airways.
This interrupts normal breathing, with symptoms including loud snoring, noisy and labored breathing, and repeated episodes when breathing is interrupted by gasping and snorting.
In the US, around 22 million are affected.
During an episode, the lack of oxygen triggers a sufferer’s brain to pull them out of deep sleep so their airways reopen.
These repeated sleep interruptions can make the person very tired, with them often being unaware of what the problem is.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
We’re all familiar with loud snoring, but if you have sleep apnea, you may also be gasping for air during sleep.
If you’ve been experiencing sleep apnea at night, you’ll likely have noticed some clues.
Typical Signs and Symptoms to Look For
- Waking up with a very sore or dry throat
- Loud snoring
- Occasionally waking up with a choking or gasping sensation
- Sleepiness or lack of energy during the day
- Sleepiness while driving
- Morning headaches
- Restless sleep
- Forgetfulness, mood changes, and a decreased interest in sex
- Recurrent awakenings or insomnia
Sleep Apnea Risk Factors
Risks for OSA include:
- Being overweight – excess body fat increases the bulk of soft tissues in the neck
- Being male
- Being 40 or over
- Having a large neck
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Being in the menopause – hormonal changes cause the throat muscles to relax
Do You Have Sleep Apnea?
The researchers also found that the number of diagnosed OSA cases in the study was extremely low, suggesting that OSA may be underdiagnosed across the board.
Dr. Curta, a radiology resident at Munich University Hospital in Germany, urges people who snore to get screened for OSA and those with OSA to seek treatment. He says:
“I would encourage people who snore to ask their partner to observe them and look for phases during sleep when they stop breathing for a short while and then gasp for air.”
He continues, “If unsure, they can spend the night at a sleep lab where breathing is constantly monitored during sleep and even slight alterations can be recorded.”
The team now hopes to conduct more research to fully understand the sex differences linked to snoring and OSA.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
To diagnose your condition, your doctor may make an evaluation based on your signs and symptoms, an examination, and tests. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist in a sleep center for further evaluation.
You’ll have a physical examination, and your doctor will examine the back of your throat, mouth and nose for extra tissue or abnormalities. Your doctor may measure your neck and waist circumference and check your blood pressure.
A sleep specialist may conduct additional evaluations to diagnose your condition, determine the severity of your condition and plan your treatment.
The evaluation may involve overnight monitoring of your breathing and other body functions as you sleep. Tests to detect obstructive sleep apnea include:
During this sleep study, you’re hooked up to equipment that monitors your heart, lung and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels while you sleep.
You may have a full-night study, in which you’re monitored all night, or a split-night sleep study.
In a split-night sleep study, you’ll be monitored during the first half of the night. If you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, staff may wake you and give you continuous positive airway pressure for the second half of the night.
This test can help your doctor diagnose obstructive sleep apnea and adjust positive airway pressure therapy, if appropriate. This sleep study can also help rule out other sleep disorders, such as periodic limb movements of sleep or narcolepsy, which also can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, but require different treatment.
Home Sleep Apnea Testing
Under certain circumstances, your doctor may provide you with an at-home version of polysomnography to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea.
This test usually involves measurement of airflow, breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels, and possibly limb movements and snoring intensity.
Referral to a Specialist
Your doctor also may refer you to an ear, nose and throat doctor to rule out any anatomic blockage in your nose or throat.
New Sleep Apnea Treatments
The realization that the CPAP machine has such a high abandonment rate has fueled research into identifying apnea’s causes more directly and tailoring therapies for each patient.
For patients who’ve tried CPAP machines in the past and can’t tolerate them, it’s worth talking to a specialist and looking at some of the innovations in treatments that have evolved over the past few years.
Smaller, Quieter, Less Invasive CPAP Machines
Reviews of CPAP machines list the decibel levels as significantly lower than older units with the quietest new machines coming in at 27 decibels, slightly louder than a 24-decibel whisper. They are smaller, some weighing less than two pounds, and many have built in humidifiers and heaters to make the air more comfortable.
For example, the XT Series from Apex is one of the smallest CPAP in the market. Its palm-sized and lightweight design lends itself well to travel, as well.
It delivers the same effective therapy as the larger machines, and includes useful features like easy-to-adjust ramp settings, automatic altitude adjustment, leak compensation and data collection by SD card. And now, enhanced pressure stability and the clinically proven algorithm make the New XT series even more comfortable, with the introduction of the PVA pressure relief function.
Apex XT CPAP Features
- Palm-sized design including power supply
- Easy to use interface
- Clinically proven auto-adjusting algorithm
- PVA pressure relief function
- SD card & USB port for efficacy data retrieval
- Built-in alarm clock function
For some, a nasal pillow can work instead of a mouth and nose mask, making the footprint of the CPAP on the face much smaller and less claustrophobic.
There are also nasal plugs that passively (no electricity or wires required) can maintain positive air pressure that supports the breathing process and can help prevent obstructions.
These prescription nasal plugs make it easy to breathe in, but harder to breathe out, which leaves some air chambered like in a balloon to support the soft tissues that can collapse in sleep causing apnea.
Mouthpieces are technically called mandibular repositioning devices (MRD) because they move the jaw to keep the airway open. Some are custom molded and can be a next line of therapy for patients who can’t tolerate CPAP machines.
The ZQuiet system is a popular example of an MRD: it widens the airway by gently advancing your lower jaw. It’s based on the technology that dentists have been using for years to effectively treat their patients’ snoring issues.
It’s engineered to work right out of the box with no fitting required.
Positional Apnea Aids
Research shows that 80-85% of snorers only snore while sleeping on their backs. For this, doctors have often prescribed two tennis balls sewn into a tube sock and pinned to the back of the pajamas. If a patient turns on his back, the balls are uncomfortable and force him to turn onto his side.
One study of the practice found that 38 percent of people who tried this method were still using it 6 months later (this trick could work for people who snore and don’t have apnea).
If you’re not inclined to sew your own, this Stop Snoring T-Shirt, for example, might just be the simplest solution for a back-snorer with sleep apnea.
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