How can sleep apnea affect heart health?


In this article: 

  • Most often associated with snoring, sleep apnea is a condition that causes your breathing to stop and start during sleep – often dozens of times per hour. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the airway gets blocked during sleep and limits the flow of oxygen.  

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is closely linked with heart disease. Sleep apnea causes spikes in blood pressure, leading to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.  

  • Learn how sleep apnea affects your heart health, how to know if you have sleep apnea and when to see a physician for care.  

If you or a loved one are experiencing chest discomfort, shortness of breath, pain or any other signs of distress, please call 911. Talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle, medications or activity levels. 

You might not know if you snore during sleep, but your partner, family members and anyone who has slept in the same room with you are probably well aware. While snoring can cause restlessness, increase fatigue and be simply irritating for those around you, severe snoring might also be a sign of sleep apnea – a disorder that is tightly linked with cardiovascular disease. 

Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing stops and starts during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea, where the airway gets blocked and limits the flow of oxygen to the body, is the most common kind of sleep apnea. People with obstructive sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing heart disease.  

“The stress that sleep apnea puts on your body can impact your heart, muscles and vessels in negative ways,” says Providence cardiologist John W. Waggoner, M.D. “Over time, if left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to bigger problems for your heart, including a higher risk of a heart attack.” 

How does sleep apnea increase the risk of heart disease? 

Patients with obstructive sleep apnea repeatedly stop breathing during sleep, with some pausing their breathing more than 30 times each hour. Every time breathing stops, oxygen levels drop and the body responds by releasing a stress hormone called epinephrine (adrenaline). For patients with sleep apnea, this constant release of stress hormones over time can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.  

“Our bodies’ stress response is an important one, but it shouldn’t be running all the time – especially while we are resting,” Dr. Waggoner says.  

Sleep apnea has been associated with increased risk for: 

How do I know if I have sleep apnea? 

Like heart disease, sleep apnea is extremely common. Around 1 in 5 adults experience some form of sleep apnea. The two conditions also have common risk factors, including obesity, older age, tobacco use and alcohol consumption.  

Loud snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnea (though not all snorers have sleep apnea). Other signs include: 

  • Dry mouth 

  • Headache 

  • Insomnia (not being able to sleep) 

  • Irritability 

  • Night sweats 

  • Stopping and starting breathing or gasping for air during sleep 

When to see a physician for sleep apnea care 

If you believe you have sleep apnea – especially if it is impacting your ability to function – it’s important to talk to your doctor. Your doctor will talk through your symptoms and may recommend a sleep study to better understand your sleep patterns.  

If you do have sleep apnea, your physician might recommend treatments including: 

  • Mouthpieces to help keep the airway open 

  • Nasal sprays to stop or reduce snoring 

  • Positive airway pressure (PAP) devices, including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines to maintain airflow 

  • Weight loss to reduce the pressure on the throat 

“It’s important to understand if you have sleep apnea and how it might impact other aspects of your health,” says Dr. Waggoner. “Starting treatment won’t just help your sleep, but your heart as well.” 

Schedule your appointment today 

Keep your heart healthy with regular wellness visits and screenings. Find a physician or schedule an appointment today at

Related resources 

Heart Matters on Apple Podcasts 

8 ways to start lowering your blood pressure today 

The importance of sleep and its connection to mental health 

Providence’s Sleep Medicine clinic aids in improved sleep and overall health 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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