The Health Effects of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea makes you stop breathing in your sleep. This can happen repeatedly throughout the night.

When you stop breathing, your brain tries to wake you up so you’ll start again. Constant sleep interruptions can have a negative effect on your health.

This article looks at what sleep apnea does to your body and how to treat it so you can rest better.

A young Black man wears a CPAP mask while sleeping.

AndreyPopov / Getty Images

Health Effects

Both breathing pauses and sleep deprivation can have a big impact on your health. Sleep apnea increases your risk of several health problems.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

Being tired can make you fall asleep at bad times, like when you’re driving. It can also impair memory and motor skills. It may put you in a bad mood.

Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) may increase your risk of workplace injuries and accidents.

Children with sleep apnea often struggle with schoolwork. They’re also likely to have attention and behavior problems.

Strokes and Transient Ischemic Attacks

Untreated sleep apnea increases your risk of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke."

In a stroke, blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted. Oxygen and nutrients can’t get through, and brain cells start dying within minutes.

Sleep apnea is associated with strokes by lowering your oxygen levels. That starts a chain reaction in the brain that leads to impaired blood flow.

A stroke can kill you. Or it may partially paralyze you. That may leave you having to re-learn basic skills like walking and eating.

In a TIA, blood flow is only blocked for a few minutes. Still, in the early minutes, it’s impossible to tell it apart from a stroke. Also, TIAs often warn that a stroke is coming.

A stroke or TIA is always a medical emergency. The faster you get help, the less brain damage you’ll have.

Symptoms of a stroke come on suddenly. Watch for:

  • Numbness or weakness, especially on just one side of the body
  • Confusion, difficulty speaking, or trouble understanding other people
  • Vision problems in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, or trouble walking
  • Severe headache

Heart Problems

Sleep apnea can be hard on your heart and circulatory system. 

When you stop breathing and oxygen levels drop, your body tries to circulate more oxygen by increasing your blood pressure. High blood pressure leads to heart and circulatory problems.

Sleep apnea is tied to:

  • Atherosclerosis: A chronic disease involving plaque (build-up) in the arteries. Arteries can become partially or completely blocked, impeding blood flow.
  • Heart attack: Can be caused by rupturing atherosclerosis plaque. Blood clots form and block the flow of blood. This causes the heart muscles to die.
  • Heart failure: The heart is too weak to pump blood properly, or it can’t fill up with enough blood.
  • Treatment-resistant hypertension (high blood pressure): Damages the inner walls of the arteries. Can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Any of these cardiac problems can be fatal.

Ethnicity Matters

In the U.S., sleep apnea is more common in people who are Black, Hispanic, and Native than in those who are White.

Cancer

Research suggests sleep apnea slightly increases your risk of certain kinds of cancer. These include:

Some researchers speculate that sleep disruptions might cause oxidative stress, an imbalance on a molecular level that causes free radicals in your cells. These unhealthy cells are believed to be tied to many types of illness. The over-stressed cells may contribute to cancer’s development.

Others attribute the increased risk to changes in metabolism, inflammation, and immunity due to sleep apnea.

An older study suggests people with sleep apnea die of cancer at five times the national average.

COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and sleep apnea go together so often there’s even a name for it: COPD-OSA overlap syndrome.

COPD is an umbrella term for obstructive lung diseases, which include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both COPD and sleep apnea involve lung inflammation.

When you have both conditions together, it further increases your risk of heart problems, hypertension, and stroke. You’re also at risk for:

  • Elevated carbon dioxide levels (hypercapnia)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs)
  • Right-sided heart failure
  • Higher death rates

Type 2 Diabetes

Research suggests people with obesity and sleep apnea are more likely to develop diabetes. And more than half of people with type-2 diabetes have sleep apnea.

Fatty Liver Disease

Sleep apnea is also linked to fatty liver disease. Researchers observed a greater new onset of sleep apnea in patients with fatty liver disease.

In fatty liver disease, fat builds up in your liver, and over time, that can damage your liver and impair its function.

Fatty liver disease can be due to heavy alcohol use. When it’s not, it’s called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In some people, the liver is inflamed and develops cellular damage. This is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). 

Obesity contributes to the development of NAFLD and NASH. NAFLD generally doesn’t cause any symptoms. The symptoms of NASH can take years to be evident. They include:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Chronic itchiness
  • Spider-like blood vessels

Obesity

Obesity is believed to contribute to sleep apnea and many of its overlapping conditions. That includes type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.

When someone has obesity, fat deposits narrow the airways. The muscles that keep the airway open normally relax during sleep, which is exaggerated in patients with sleep apnea since they start with a narrower airway from the fat deposits.

Poor sleep may also disrupt appetite hormones. The hormone ghrelin makes you hungry. Leptin, its counterpart, makes you feel sated after eating. Sleep deprivation, depending on the type and duration, may lead to too much ghrelin and too little leptin.

Being tired can also rob you of your motivation to exercise or be active, which may contribute to weight gain, as well.

Who’s At Risk?

You’re at higher risk for sleep apnea if you’re:

  • Overweight
  • Male
  • 40 or older
  • Have a family history of small airways


Lower Sex Drive

Research suggests both males and females with sleep apnea are likely to have a low libido or sex drive. (Other sexes haven’t been studied.)

In one study, about 23% of men with sleep apnea had a low sex drive. They tended to be older and more depressed than men with more drive.

Sleep apnea also may be related to higher rates of erectile dysfunction. People over 65 with sleep apnea are more likely to have impaired sex drive and function.

Less research has been done on the sexual impact of sleep apnea on women. One small study showed women’s sex drive improved with sleep apnea treatment.

Other studies suggest sleep apnea treatment can improve male sex drive and performance.

Other

Other disorders sleep apnea can lead to include:

  • Memory and attention problems (e.g., concentration problems, verbal memory deficits)
  • Dementia
  • Pregnancy complications (e.g., gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, low birth-weight baby)

Treatment

There are many treatments for sleep apnea. It may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you.

CPAP/BiPAP

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The machine is attached to a tube and a mask that you wear to sleep. The pressurized air keeps tissues in the airways from collapsing in.

The similar bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine provides different pressures when breathing in than breathing out.

CPAP/BiPAP therapy can improve sleep apnea and many related conditions.

If you breathe through your mouth at night, you might need a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Or you might do well with a chinstrap to keep your mouth closed. These are often used along with CPAP.

Devices and Implants

If you’re unable to tolerate CPAP or don’t want to use one, you do have other options. Several oral devices and implants are available.

Oral devices are custom fit to you. You wear them when you sleep. These include:

  • Jaw-repositioning mouthpieces: Hold the jaw forward to keep it from blocking the airway
  • Tongue-retaining devices: Hold the tongue forward to keep it from blocking the airway

Some devices may adjust both the jaw and the tongue.

A newer oral device is used when you’re awake. It stimulates the muscles in your tongue. The device is used once a day for 20 minutes, over a course of six weeks. It helps strengthen the muscles so it doesn’t collapse into your airways.

Implants are surgically implanted in your body that stimulate the hypoglossal nerve, which controls your tongue. It keeps the tongue out of the airways.

Orofacial Therapy

Orofacial means “mouth and face.” Orofacial therapy helps strengthen the muscles that control your:

  • Face 
  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Soft palate
  • Top part of the throat (pharynx)

As with other sleep apnea treatments, this can help keep the airways open.

Surgery

Surgery for sleep apnea is less common than other treatments. It may be an option if you haven’t been helped by CPAP or devices. 

It’s sometimes used to remove upper airway obstructions. These surgeries include:

  • Tonsil removal (tonsillectomy): Enlarged tonsils can block the flow of air
  • Jaw advancement: Enlarges the upper airway by moving the jaw forward
  • Tracheostomy: A tube is placed through a hole in your neck and into the windpipe

Lifestyle Changes

Healthy lifestyle changes may help with your sleep apnea. They include:

  • Losing weight: Because obesity is tied to sleep apnea, losing weight may reduce or eliminate symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed: Alcohol may relax the structures around your airways and contribute to breathing pauses.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking cigarettes greatly increases your risk of sleep apnea and makes it more severe.
  • Improve bedtime habits: Have a consistent bedtime, set aside enough time for sleep, and create a comfortable environment. Also, limit late-evening exercise and screen/light exposure.

Summary

Sleep apnea does much more than make you tired the next day. It increases your risk of numerous health problems.

Treating sleep apnea can lower your risk of developing other conditions and may help treat any related conditions you already have, such as diabetes or erectile dysfunction.

A Word From Verywell

You may not realize you have sleep apnea, especially if you sleep alone. If you have symptoms, like excessive daytime sleepiness, talk to your healthcare provider.

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to all kinds of health problems. Don’t take the risk—get tested and work with your healthcare provider to find treatments that work for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the long-term effects of sleep apnea?

    Over the long term, sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, liver and kidney disease, obesity, cancer, and more.

  • Is sleep apnea curable?

    Sometimes, yes. If it’s caused by obesity and you lose weight, sleep apnea may go away. Surgery or implants may also cure the condition.

  • What is the life expectancy of someone with untreated sleep apnea?

    People with untreated sleep apnea face a much higher risk of death than people without sleep apnea or those who are successfully treated. 

    Severe sleep apnea triples your risk of dying from any cause. Regular use of a CPAP appears to significantly lower that risk.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • American Sleep Apnea Association: sleepapnea.org. What is sleep apnea?

  • National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep apnea.