Image of Yerem Yeghiazarians, M.D.

The role of obstructive sleep apnea in cardiovascular disease is underestimated, and the condition subsequently is under-treated, according to a new scientific statement by the American Heart Association.

Fully 40% to 80% of people with cardiovascular disease in the United States have the condition, which can negatively effect patients’ health and increase the odds of cardiovascular events and death. It is strongly tied to severe high blood pressure and linked to atrial fibrillation, stroke, worsening heart failure, and pulmonary hypertension.

“Sleep apnea can cause a negative feedback loop whereby it worsens cardiovascular conditions, which then worsen the sleep apnea,” wrote Yerem Yeghiazarians, M.D., of the University of California San Francisco, and co-authors.

The high prevalence of the condition in cardiovascular disease, along with evidence that treatment improves quality of life, suggest that a push for more screening and treatment is needed, the authors wrote.

“Patients report better mood, less snoring, less daytime sleepiness, improved quality of life  and work productivity with obstructive sleep apnea treatment,” Yeghiazarians said.

“The overall message is clear: we need to increase awareness about screening for and treating OSA, especially in patients with existing cardiovascular risk factors,” he and his colleagues concluded.

In obstructive sleep apnea, a partially blocked upper airway causes repeated disruptions in breathing during sleep. Symptoms include snoring, lapses in breathing, and daytime sleepiness. About 34% of middle-aged men and 17% of middle-aged women are estimated to have the condition, according to the AHA. 

Other recent studies have tied the severity of sleep apnea to increasing degrees of cognitive impairment, and to the buildup of brain plaques, a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

The full AHA statement can be found in the journal Circulation.