Scientists have shown that those with breathing problems—and especially sleep apnea—are at a greater risk for certain heart diseases. Sleep apnea is one of the most common, and under-diagnosed, sleep disorders in the United States today. A major symptom of sleep apnea is persistent snoring, because snoring signals that the airways are being blocked in some way. While snoring is an unpleasant reminder that the person is not getting the proper sleep he or she needs, it doesn’t stop there. Many are ashamed of going to a doctor for snoring, and others are simply unaware that this is a small sign of a much larger dilemma. Many snoring cases contribute to the number of people diagnosed with sleep apnea in the US each year. Researchers have also looked at the various ways that breathing problems persist beyond sleep, particularly how breathing and sleep apnea can lead to heart disease. .

Recently researchers have found some evidence of how breathing problems and sleep apnea affect heart disease and stroke, but exactly what creates this link has eluded scientists so far. Researchers at the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine conducted a study involving nearly 40 volunteers, with half of them having moderate to heavy sleep apnea, and the other half with mild to no sleep apnea symptoms. For all of the volunteers, the team of researchers did a full diagnostic of their sleep patterns and overall health, eliminating other sleep disorders that could corrupt the results of the study. They had all the volunteers ride on stationary exercise bikes for a long duration – to exhaustion – while at times slowly increasing the resistance of the exercise bikes in order to simulate someone riding a bicycle up a steep hill. The results of this study were startling.

The researchers measured what is called the VO2 max: a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen the body can absorb through breathing during strenuous exercise. They measured and compared the results of those with moderate to heavy sleep apnea to those without sleep apnea of the same age, gender, and body mass index. From the comparison, they learned that those with sleep apnea had, on average, a 14% lower VO2 max than the control subjects. This deviance increased when the subjects with sleep apnea had a higher rate of breathing – for 10 seconds or more – per each hour of sleep. This shows that breathing problems persist beyond sleep for those suffering from sleep apnea, and that these results may be early indicators of the link between sleep apnea and heart disease and stroke. Since most who have sleep apnea are not diagnosed until serious complications arise and are often obese, thus already at a higher risk for complications later in life, it is imperative that people know if they have sleep apnea. The sooner you discover you have this treatable disorder, the sooner you can be on the road to recovery.