Consequences of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can lead to a number of complications, ranging from daytime sleepiness to possible increased risk of death. Sleep apnea has a strong association with several diseases, particularly those related to the heart and circulation.

Daytime Sleepiness
Daytime sleepiness is the most noticeable and probably the most serious complication of sleep apnea. It interferes with mental alertness and quality of life. Daytime sleepiness also increases the risk for accident-related injuries. People with sleep apnea are three times more likely to be in car accidents. Under-treated sleep apnea is also a major risk factor for work related injuries at factories and construction work sites.

Heart and Circulation
A number of cardiovascular diseases -- including high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and heart arrhythmias -- have an association with obstructive sleep apnea.

New research suggests that in people who already have cancer, the sleep disorder may raise their risk of dying from cancer. People with the most severe sleep apnea -- those who have 30 or more episodes of low or no oxygen in an hour of sleep -- had almost five times the risk of cancer death compared to someone without sleep apnea.

Higher Incidence of Many Medical Conditions
Obesity. When it comes to sleep apnea and obesity, it is not always clear which condition is responsible for the other. For example, obesity is often a risk factor and possibly a cause of sleep apnea, but it is also likely that sleep apnea increases the risk for weight gain.

Psychological Effects
Studies report an association between severe apnea and psychological problems. The risk for depression rises with increasing severity of sleep apnea.

Effects on Bed Partners
Sleep apnea often includes loud chronic snoring. This condition can adversely affect the sleep quality of a patient's bed partner.

Apnea in Infants and Children

Failure to Thrive. Small children with undiagnosed sleep apnea may "fail to thrive," that is, they do not gain weight or grow at a normal rate and they have low levels of growth hormone. In severe cases, this may affect the heart and central nervous system.

Attention Deficits and Hyperactivity. Problems in attention and hyperactivity are common in children with sleep apnea. There is some evidence that such children may be misdiagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Snoring, rather than sleepiness, is a stronger risk factor for hyperactivity in many of these children, especially boys under 8 years old. Even children who snore and do not have sleep apnea may be at higher risk for poor concentration.