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Health Team

Sleeping disorder can be deadly

Posted August 21, 2009 1:31 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2009 6:23 p.m. EDT

— Sleep apnea, a common disorder that wakes many Americans every night, could have deadly consequences, according to a new study by researchers at New York University Langone Medical Center.

Mogens Petersen is being treated for sleep apnea.

"My wife reports that I gasp for air, and it made her nervous," Petersen said.

While sleep apnea patients like Petersen sleep, their airways collapse, keeping oxygen from reaching the lungs. To reopen those airways, the brain interrupts deep sleep.

"They are suffocating, if you will, for 10, 20, 30 seconds, and then that wakes them up. This cycle can repeat hundreds, even thousands of times in one night," said Dr. David Rapoport, one of the study's co-authors.

After monitoring more than 6,000 men and women at home for at least one night, researchers found that people between ages 40 and 70 with sleep apnea are 46 percent more likely to die.

"This was most dramatically present among men," Rapoport said.

In the United States, 24 percent of men and 9 percent of women suffer from a form of sleep apnea. Many are unaware they have a problem, researchers said.

"We suspect that the vast majority, perhaps 80 to 90 percent, of sleep apnea cases are not diagnosed," Rapoport said.

Researchers are also studying the connection between sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.

"We've collected a lot of information about strokes and heart attacks and, of course, blood pressure. These seem to be elevated with this disease," Rapoport said.

Mogens is treating his sleep apnea with the most common therapy: a continuous positive airway pressure device. The ventilation machine pushes air through a person's passageways.

Mogens said the small inconvenience could turn out to be a lifesaver.

"I can feel the difference," he said.

Find out more about sleep apnea.