Tags: sleep | apnea | women | heart | health

Sleep Apnea Hits Women Harder: Study

Friday, 25 Oct 2013 04:11 PM

By Nick Tate

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Sleep apnea poses a bigger health risk to women than men, new research shows.
 
A new study by the University of California-Los Angeles School of Nursing has found sleep apnea weakens the body's autonomic responses — the controls that impact such functions as blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating — but women suffer greater negative effects.

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What's more, women with obstructive sleep apnea may appear to be healthy and their symptoms also tend to be subtler, which means their sleep problems are more easily missed.
 
"We now know that sleep apnea is a precursor to bigger health issues," said Paul Macey, who led the study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE. "And for women in particular, the results could be deadly."
 
Apnea occurs when a person's breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. Each time, the oxygen level in the blood drops, resulting in damage to many cells in the body. The condition affects more that 20 million Americans and is associated with a number of serious health consequences and early death.
 
For the study, researchers measured the heart-rate responses in men and women, with and without apnea, to three physical tests that stress the heart:
  • A breathing challenge, where subjects breathe out hard while the mouth is closed.
  • A hand-grip test, requiring them to squeeze hard with their hand.
  • A cold-water challenge, in which a person’s right foot is plunged into almost-freezing cold water for a minute.
In all three tests, changes to the normal heart rate were lower and delayed in patients with obstructive sleep apnea, compared with healthy individuals — reflecting a diminished autonomic response. The researchers also found that the difference was even more pronounced in women.
 
"The heart-rate results for these tests show that the impact of sleep apnea, while bad in men, is more severe in women," Macey said. "This may mean that women are more likely to develop symptoms of heart disease, as well as other consequences of poor adaptation to daily physical tasks. Early detection and treatment may be needed to protect against damage to the brain and other organs."
 
The next step in the research is to see if the autonomic responses improve with treatments such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), the usual sleep apnea therapy, in which a machine is used to help an individual breathe easier during sleep by keeping airways open.
 
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research.

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