Sleep Health

Can Sleep Apnea Kill You

June 19, 2023
Christina Santisteban

Have you ever woken up gasping for air in the middle of the night? Do you happen to snore loudly and wake up feeling exhausted despite a full night’s sleep? If so, you may be one of the 30 million Americans who suffer from sleep apnea. While it is a common condition, it’s often misunderstood and can have serious health consequences if left untreated.

In this article, we’ll explore a question that’s on many people’s minds: can sleep apnea kill you? The answer may surprise you!

Understanding Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Risks

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects your breathing while you’re asleep. It is also known as a “silent killer" because it often is unnoticed by the majority of people. There are both common types of sleep apnea which are easily identified and treated, but there are also uncommon types which may contain side effects from multiple different medical outlets.

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea renders to be the most common type of sleep apnea. OSA occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat near the trachea fail to keep open while you sleep (Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., MSc, 2016). These muscle contractions reduce the flow of oxygen towards the cells temporarily, but causes significant pauses or obstructions in breathing throughout the night.

  1. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain is unable to communicate with the respiratory muscles due to the airway blockage. This causes regulatory breathing patterns to be sporadic and stop and start continuously.

  1. Complex Sleep Apnea (CompSAS)

Complex sleep apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea types. The conditions for CompSAS are more complex because those affected feel the signs and symptoms of both simultaneously.

While there are three different types of sleep apnea, some common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Debilitating sleep
  • Gasping or choking while sleeping
  • Headaches upon waking up in the morning
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty concentrating

While untreated OSA might not directly cause death overnight, it has several long-term health risks that can be fatal if unidentified and untreated. These risks include high blood pressure, heart diseases, or an increase in stroke risks due to that oxygen deprivation and contribution to inflammation and asphyxiation damage - which could essentially lead to episodes of cardiac arrest.

Therefore, getting diagnosed with OSA or even any type of sleep apnea from a medical specialist should not be delayed for continuous symptoms while sleeping. Earlier treatment and intervention lowers the changes of morality rates significantly by ensuring that proper airflow circulates through a person’s body when resting and sleeping (Susan Redline, M.D., 2013).

Can Sleep Apnea Kill You? Examining the Dangers of Leaving Sleep Apnea Untreated

Are you still not convinced that sleep apnea can kill you? The answer is still yes, untreated sleep apnea especially can be a significant risk factor for various health complications.

Studies have shown that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, risk of stroke by 60%, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30% (Ferdinand Zizi, M.B.A., 2008). Additionally, untreated sleep apnea has been linked to hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

The lack of oxygen flow caused by pauses in breathing during sleep puts immense stress on your body and can interfere with brain activity. This interference causes low cognitive function and could render it challenging for the performance of daily activities, such as driving or operating heavy machinery accordingly.

A scientific study published in 2014 shows that you can improve your memory, attention, and critical thinking after three months of undergoing continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP, therapy for OSA (Vincenza Castronovo, Ph.D., 2014). Hence, not treating sleep apnea accordingly may negatively affect your daily routine and performance.

Choosing to ignore the symptoms will not just stop them from happening; it will continue to increase the possibility that the symptoms and side effects will lead to more dangerous, long-term afflictions, and possibly, death.

The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Disease: What You Need to Know

Amongst all the symptoms and side effects, sleep apnea also has the ability to put someone at risk for developing cardiovascular diseases. This is due to the concentration of symptoms that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, or irregular heartbeats (Girardin Jean-Louis, Ph.D., 2008).

The repeated breathing episodes encourage stress on your body and an increase in blood pressure, which can potentially damage your blood vessels and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems or diseases.

If you suspect that you have sleep apnea or have been diagnosed with it already, it is crucial to get your conditions identified and treated as soon as possible. As mentioned, CPAP machines help by keeping airways open while sleeping, or using oral dental appliances that specialize in sleeping disorders (Nigel McArdle, 1998).

Potentially making slight or significant lifestyle changes may also help in terms of reducing symptoms of sleep apnea. Remember, prevention is key; don’t ignore the warning signs and consult a doctor if you suspect there are potential issues with the quality of your sleep. Otherwise, sleep apnea can kill you.

What are the Health Risks of Sleep Apnea?

The health risks associated depend on the severity, which can include:

Mild: 5-14 symptomatic occurrences per hour

Moderate: 15-30 symptomatic occurrences per hour

Severe: 30 or more events per hour

Short-Term Risks of Sleep Apnea

  • Lower Immunity: Without an adequate amount of rest, the body will be unable to produce sufficient antibodies to fight infections. This can increase body vulnerability and make it easier to catch serious diseases and infections.

  • Organ Malfunctions and Failures: Repeated nighttime awakenings prevent the organs from getting enough downtime and lead to failure of performing their routine procedures (Zihe Zhang, 2017).

  • Daytime Fatigue: Sleep apnea patients may struggle to maintain focus on work or frequently drift off while performing daily activities and actions due to that ease of sleep (Levy P., 2012). 

  • Lack of Concentration: Accidents and injuries are brought on by inattention and slowed retention from a lack of quality sleep. Sleep apnea patients find performing routine tasks difficult since their body and mind was unable to rest and rejuvenate for a new day (Levy P. 2012).

Long-Term Health Risk of Sleep Apnea

Please make note that while thes short-term risks might seem highly treatable and easier to cope with, the long-term dangers of sleep apnea need to be addressed as soon as possible otherwise sleep apnea has the ability to kill you.

  • High Blood Pressure: Blood oxygen levels fall while you undergo sleep apnea, which can raise blood pressure and tighten the cardiovascular system (Jean-Louis Girardin, Ph.D., 2008).

  • Heart Diseases: Sleep apnea patients are more likely to experience some heart disorders such as atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, insulin resistance, and more. If it remains unnoticed, it can lead to heart failure or again, death (Jean-Louis Girardin, Ph.D., 2008).

  • Metabolic Syndrome: Categorized as a group of risk factors, metabolic syndrome contains the several symptoms of sleep apnea mentioned such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and gain of abdominal health (WebMD, 2021). These effects and symptoms are highly valuable in identifying and treating sleep apnea, and could possibly be enhanced with the presence of sleep apnea (Jean-Louis Girardin, Ph.D., 2008).

  • Obesity: Sleep apnea causes your body to release more ghrelin, which is a hormone that makes you crave sugar and carbohydrates. Weight gain and changes are more susceptible to occur when fatigued since the energy conversion can become ineffective. Also, being unable to control these urges for sugar and carbohydrates can lead to overeating (Isaac Almendros, 2020).

  • Stress: Sleep apnea is often associated with stress and lack of sleep. The body becomes more anxious about not getting enough sleep from sleep deprivation, insomnia, or other conditions, that cortisol levels are increased (Ferdinand Zizi, M.B.A., 2008).

  • Insomnia: As a result of the fear of developing sleep apnea, some people become sleepless. This is because their brains perceive sleep apnea as a potentially fatal condition that they program themselves to avoid (Levy P., 2012).

Chronic Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

Following are the chronic health concerns caused by sleep apnea:

  • Cancer: People with moderate or severe sleep apnea have a higher risk of getting cancer and a three times higher risk of dying from it (Isaac Almendros, 2020).

  • Type 2 Diabetes: Insulin resistance is more likely to develop those with sleep apnea (Ferdinand Zizi, M.B.A., 2008)

  • Depression: Someone who has poor sleep habits may be more susceptible to developing depression due to constant reminders of reduced sleep and anxiousness from that lack (Simon Warby, 2018).

  • Memory Loss: Some elderly sleep apnea patients report that they have trouble thinking or remembering things with the presence of old age or possible development of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is the term used to describe the range of these conditions. With this, researchers discovered that MCI is connected to “sleep-disordered breathing” which is similar to obstructive sleep apnea, but rendered not as severe as dementia (Simon Warby, 2018).

How to Diagnose and Treat Sleep Apnea

If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, it is important to get a proper diagnosis from a sleep clinic or healthcare professional. The most common diagnostic test is a sleep study, which can be performed at home or in a sleep center. During the study, your breathing patterns, heart rate, and other vital signs and symptoms will be monitored to determine if you have sleep apnea or other health conditions.

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are several treatment options available. Mentioned earlier, utilizing a continuous positive airway pressure machine is the most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea (Nigel McArdle, 1998). It involves wearing a mask over your nose and/or mouth while you sleep, which delivers a continuous flow of air to keep your airway open - similar to an oxygen mask.

Other treatments include oral appliances, which tend to be custom devices that help keep your airway open by repositioning your jaw or tongue, and surgery, which can be recommended in severe cases where machine and appliance treatments have failed.

It is important to work and communicate closely with your healthcare provider to find the best treatment plan for you. With proper treatment, most patients with sleep apnea can effectively manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Living with Sleep Apnea: Coping Strategies and Lifestyle Changes

Sleep apnea can be a challenging condition to live with, but there are many ways to manage and potentially prevent it effectively. One of the most important things you can do is make lifestyle changes that can help reduce your symptoms and overall improve your well-being and health.

Weight Loss: Losing weight is one of the most habitual ways to treat sleep apnea symptoms. This is because weight loss reduces excess tissue in the airway that causes the standard breathing obstructions. It also reduces the risk of developing chronic heart disease or other medical conditions (Markku Partinen, M.D., 1988).

Quit Smoking and Coffee Consumption: One of the best strategies to enhance sleep for someone is to quit smoking and/or vaping. Smoking is a stimulant, and stimulants make it harder to fall and remain asleep. Additionally, smokers may have additional behavioral problems if they also drink an abundance of caffeine or alcohol. Avoiding excessive drinking can lead to prevention of dementia and insomnia (Mohammed Adam Ahmed Elnour, 2019).

Regular Sleep/Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene: Another important coping strategy is to establish a regular sleep schedule and routine. Going to bed and waking up sufficiently can help regulate the natural sleep-wake cycle of your body and improve sleep quality (Levy P., 2012).

Use CPAP Machines/Technologies: If you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, you may also benefit from using a CPAP machine while you sleep. This device delivers a steady stream of air pressure and oxygen to keep your airway open and to prevent pauses in breathing while you sleep (Nigel McArdle, 1988).

Consult Your Doctor: Finally, it is important to openly inform and communicate with your doctor about any concerns, difficulties, or underlying conditions that you may be experiencing with your health or sleeping habits. Your doctor is the best person to advise a treatment plan as needed, and ensure that you’re getting the support you need to manage your conditions effectively.


To answer it once more, yes, sleep apnea can kill you. Sleep apnea is a serious health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It can lead to severe health risks if left untreated from cardiovascular disease to sudden death. However, the good news is that with the proper diagnosis and treatment, individuals suffering from sleep apnea can manage their symptoms effectively and live a full life.

Attempting to have a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, weight management, and avoiding excessive alcohol and stimulant tendencies, can help prevent the development of sleep apnea. So don’t wait until it’s too late to take action to protect your health and future!

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