Wait a minute – aren’t people with chronic breathing problems supposed to be at a greater risk of heart related issues? While this is generally the case, new research suggests that a mild case of sleep apnea may actually assist in recovery for heart attack victims.

How can this be the case? Researchers have learned that when a person experiences breathing problems in their sleep, certain rare cells in the body called EPC’s are produced that help to both build and repair blood vessels.

What does this finding mean? It could possibly result in a better means of predicting the risk of heart attacks, as well as providing a means to rebuild tissue in the heart for anyone who suffers an attack.

There is clearly a connection between sleep apnea (which reduces the body’s oxygen level while a person is asleep) and heart attack risk – this can be seen by the fact that around half of cardiovascular disease patients have both conditions, even though only one in ten of the general population suffer from sleep apnea.

Since sleep apnea clearly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, how does it help someone who has suffered a heart attack? From studying a number of male patients recovering from heart attacks, it was revealed that those with sleep apnea have more EPC’s (cells which are responsible for repairing blood vessel damage and building new blood vessels).

The same was found to be true of certain proteins that promote growth and the production of immune system cells that also assist the blood vessels, all shown through blood tests performed on the male patients.

What this shows is that while sleep apnea stresses the heart and may cause it to fail, it also seems to have a restorative effect, and can help a heart attack victim to recover faster and more fully. Does this mean that heart attack victims who don’t have sleep apnea are doomed to a tougher recovery?

No – researchers also experimented with heart attack patients who did not have sleep apnea, and they were able to reproduce the same circumstances in which the blood vessels were allowed to build, by restricting oxygen from the patient in much the same way as apnea would.

In the future this may give medical practitioners a means of increasing EPC production in those who have had a heart attack, by simply administering controlled periods of oxygen deprivation. Research is continuing into whether or not this is a practice that should be performed.