We tend to think of snoring and sleep apnea as men’s problems. It’s the stereotype that the man snores, disturbing his wife. However, this stereotype could be badly misleading , so badly that it puts women’s lives at risk.
A new study shows that heart-related risks of sleep apnea might be higher for women. Women might even start developing dangerous symptoms at a younger age. Worse, in part because of our beliefs that this a man’s problem the rate of sleep apnea is badly underdiagnosed in women snorers.
Women at Elevated Risk
This study, presented to the Radiological Society of North America, draws off a British health database of people who had cardiac MRIs, which can look at the structure and function of the heart. Researchers hoped to be able to tell how sleep apnea impacted the heart. The study included a total of 5000 participants, 118 diagnosed with sleep apnea, and 1886 self-reported snorers. Of the initial 5000, about 400 were considered ineligible for the study.
The cardiac MRIs revealed that people with sleep apnea developed masses on their left ventricle of the heart. This can interfere with heart function. The left ventricle is the part of the heart that pumps blood out to the body. A smaller number of people also had masses on their right ventricle, which is the chamber that pumps blood to the lungs.
The masses on the heart were associated with lower function. People with sleep apnea had a lower ejection fraction than those who didn’t have sleep apnea. Ejection fraction is the amount of blood the heart can pump out, compared to the amount that stays behind.
When looking at the impact of sleep apnea, researchers found that women with sleep apnea tended to have more enlargement of the heart , and a lower ejection fraction. Researchers also found that many women who were self-reported snorers–but not diagnosed with sleep apnea–experienced serious heart-related changes.
Based on the effects to the heart, researchers concluded that many of the self-reported snorers actually had undiagnosed sleep apnea.
How badly undiagnosed? We don’t know. Researchers didn’t estimate how many participants actually had sleep apnea. However, other research indicates that at least three-quarters of habitual snorers had sleep apnea. This means that it’s likely the study population included more than 1000 people with undiagnosed sleep apnea. In other words, perhaps 90% of people with sleep apnea in this study were undiagnosed.
Sleep Apnea Diagnosis Can Protect Your Heart
This study shows that there are very concrete effects of sleep apnea on your heart’s structure and function. The study also shows that you aren’t safe just because you haven’t been diagnosed with sleep apnea. If you are a snorer, you need to be tested for sleep apnea.
The study also reminds us that this may be even more crucial for women than men.