Sleep Apnea and Stroke: Is There A Link?

Tens of millions of people across the United States are afflicted with insomnia. Besides your everyday causes of insomnia, such as stress or anxiety, there are a host of health conditions that can impact a person’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. In fact, conditions such as heart disease and diabetes seem to be frequently connected with sleep disorders. There may also be a connection between sleep apnea and stroke. Since more than a quarter of a million Americans suffer a stroke each year, this is concern of national proportions. What is sleep apnea, and are you really more likely to experience it if you’ve had a stroke?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that involves momentary pauses in a person’s breathing during sleep. This prevents a person from falling into a deep sleep, as their sleep is interrupted while they start breathing again. A person may not even know that this is occurring—they may simply feel tired upon waking—from what they thought was 8 hours of sleep! If left untreated, this condition can lead to many other serious health concerns.

So, why do stroke victims tend to have this sleep disorder? The fact is a stroke can occur in any part of the brain. While the brain’s sleeping mechanism isn’t fully understood, it is now recognized that the location of a stroke can determine whether or not it impacts sleeping, and, in particular, our ability to breathe during sleep. This part of the brain, the brain stem, makes up the base. It is also where the brain meets the spinal cord. This part of the central nervous system is responsible for many of the activities that our body performs without conscious effort, like breathing. One recent study found that nearly 90 percent of people who experienced a stroke in this part of the brain ended up testing positive for sleep apnea.

The good news about sleep apnea and stroke is that sleep apnea is treatable. So, if you’ve experienced a stroke and are now feeling fatigued, even after getting a full night’s sleep, talk to your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea. The sooner sleep apnea is diagnosed, and the sooner treatment begins, the less likely you will experience any of the other adverse consequences of this sleep disorder.