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Women with Sleep Apnea at Higher Risk for Death

sleep apnea and women

A new study shows that for women, sleep apnea may be more deadly than previously thought. (Photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Sleep experts have known for awhile that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA )increases the chance of pre-mature death by contributing to a host of serious health problems.  It is also a well-known fact that the condition itself can lead to death in severe cases.  But a new study shows that for women, sleep apnea may be even more deadly than previously thought.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Nursing shows that women with sleep apnea may experience more impairments in cardiovascular regulation than their male peers.  The news for all those with sleep apnea is not good as the study also highlighted that all those with the condition exhibit weaker autonomic responses than those who do not have the condition.

The goal of the study was to look at each participant’s cardiovascular response to specific autonomic challenges in order to better understand the central nervous system dysfunction and impairments that are believed to be present in those with sleep apnea.  The team’s findings indicate that the autonomic responses that control blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating are weaker is all people with OSA than their peers without the condition.  Additionally, this impairment was more pronounced in women with the condition.

The study included 94 adult participants, 37 of whom had recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea.  Each participant underwent a series of three physical tasks while the research team monitored their heart rate.  The three tasks were:

  • A Valsalva maneuver  which requires participants to breathe out hard while keeping the mouth closed
  • A hand-grip challenge which requires participants to squeeze hard with one hand
  • A cold pressor challenge which requires each participant to have their right foot submerged in  near-freezing water for a  full minute.

When control group participants performed these three tasks, their heart rates jumped predictably but the results for the OSA participants was not as expected.  The heart rate responses of the OSA participants showed a smaller increase, slower rate of change and delayed response to the tasks when compared with the results of the control group.  This means that there may be injury or damage caused by OSA or relating to OSA that is causing cardiovascular and/or central nervous system impairment that can lead to serious health problems.

These findings highlight the need for early detection and treatment of OSA, especially in women who are traditionally under diagnosed.   They also open the door to the next phase of this team’s research which will seek to determine if there is any positive change seen in these test results when participants undergo treatment for their OSA.


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