Sleep apnea can have many serious health consequences. Many of these are well-established, such as an increased risk of heart disease. However, the link between sleep apnea and cancer remains less well-proven. While some studies show that sleep apnea can trigger underlying mechanisms for cancer growth , can increase breast cancer risk , and reduce survival odds from breast cancer , others show there is no connection.

The problem with many studies looking at sleep apnea and cancer is that they are too small to provide adequate statistical power to make quality conclusions about cancer risk. A new study aimed to solve this problem by using a large European sleep apnea database. Using this powerful database, the study provided the strongest-ever evidence for a link between sleep apnea and cancer.

Young woman rests peacefully in her bed

Database Provides Statistical Power

This new study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, drew from the European database ESADA, which included about 20,000 adult patients with sleep apnea. About 2% of these patients had a cancer diagnosis.

The study found first that cancer risk was linked to age, but beyond that it was also linked to breathing stoppages during sleep. That’s after correcting for various risk factors such as:

  • Gender
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption

The study showed that the risk was higher for women with intermittent sleep hypoxia. Severe sleep apnea may have as much as tripled the cancer risk for women. For men, cancer risk was also elevated, but the statistical significance of this increase was lower.

Not a Causal Link

Researchers caution that this study doesn’t actually say that sleep apnea causes cancer in women. However, it strongly hints at mechanisms that could contribute to an elevated cancer risk. Researchers proposed that this link could be related to female sex hormones and stress activation, which could either trigger the development of sleep apnea or weaken the body’s ability to fight cancer during its early stages.

They also proposed that more work should be done on specific cancers, such as breast cancer, womb cancer, or cervical cancer, that affect women.

Protect Your Health by Treating Sleep Apnea

This study reminds us how important it is to treat sleep apnea. The myriad health effects of this condition can combine to dramatically increase your risk of death at a young age. For example, one 2014 study showed that sleep apnea is linked to a fourfold increase in risk of all-cause mortality. This includes a tripling of the death risk from cancer. Other studies show as much as a sixfold increase in mortality risk.

Are you looking to protect your health from the effects of sleep apnea? We can help. Please call (248) 480-0085 today for an appointment with Detroit area sleep dentist Dr. Jeffrey S. haddad at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness.