Sleep apnea impacts all the systems in our body . This includes our eyes. In fact, sleep apnea can have a dramatic impact on our eyes, leading to sudden vision loss in one or both eyes.
That’s because sleep apnea has been linked to an elevated risk of nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), which can suddenly cause permanent vision damage or loss. Now a new study shows that the risk is especially bad for young people.
Insight from a Large Population
The results of this study come from the insurance records of over 42,000 individuals in Taiwan from 1996-2013. About 8500 people in the study had been diagnosed with sleep apnea, while the others had not. Over the study period, about 0.36% of those with sleep apnea developed NAION. However, only 0.2% of those without sleep apnea developed the condition. After accounting for other risk factors, researchers concluded that sleep apnea increased the risk of NAION by 66%.
But NAION risk changes with age. Normally, the risk of NAION doesn’t become significant until people reach the age of 50. But relatively young people in this study saw their risk jump much more significantly. People in the age group 30-39 saw their risk increase by about 530%! That is a very high risk rate for a condition this frightening.
What Is NAION?
With NAION, people just wake up one morning and find that their vision is reduced. For some people, the loss can be complete, but it’s normally partial blindness in one eye. In about 20% of cases, vision loss in the second eye occurs within a few days.
We’re not entirely sure what causes NAION. But for some reason, the blood supply to the nerves behind the eyes gets blocked. We know the condition isn’t related to arteresis, the swelling of the arteries, which can block the blood supply, which is why it’s called non-arteritic.
There are some other risk factors that are linked to NAION, most of which are also linked to sleep apnea. High blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes have all been associated with NAION.
One potential explanation focuses on blood pressure medication, claiming that it’s actually low blood pressure that’s causing the vision loss. However, studies haven’t established a link between low blood pressure and NAION.
And although the name includes the term “ischemic,”we haven’t identified a blood vessel blocking mechanism like in an ischemic stroke. Our lack of understanding of the condition also means we don’t have a good treatment for NAION. Prevention is our best approach, which means that addressing risk factors like sleep apnea could be very important.
Other Ways Sleep Apnea Threatens Vision
Although NAION is a frightening condition, it’s just one of several ways that sleep apnea could increase your risk of vision loss.
Glaucoma has been linked to sleep apnea, as well. Your risk of losing vision to glaucoma is 4 times higher if you have sleep apnea. Like NAION, glaucoma is caused by damage to your optic nerve. Unlike NAION, most vision loss related to glaucoma is gradual, although it impacts the center of your field of vision first.
Papilledema is caused by damage to the disc where the optic nerve attaches to the eye. You might experience a hemorrhage in the area before vision loss. And with this condition, vision loss may be reversible if detected and treated quickly.
Retinal vein occlusion starts with a blockage of the blood leaving the eye. In response, the body grows new veins to remove waste from the eye. These new veins can block the retina, leading to vision loss.
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that is similar to retinal vein occlusion. When blood vessels in the eye get damaged by diabetes, the body grows replacements. Diabetics with sleep apnea are 2.3 times more likely to develop sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy (STDR).
Save Your Sight!
Vision is so critical to functioning and living a good life. Without it, life becomes much harder. And, unfortunately, once vision starts to get lost, it can be hard to restore. It’s important to take steps to reduce your risk now, and sleep apnea treatment can help reduce your risk.