Understanding the Relationship Between Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease

Heart disease, which refers to a number of different but related heart conditions, is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. These conditions tend to be caused by a number of compounding variables, such as poor dietary habits, a lack of physical activity, and being diagnosed with other health conditions. 

When people think about diseases that can contribute to heart disease, they most likely think of conditions like hypertension, obesity, or diabetes — but one lesser-known disorder connected to heart disease is sleep apnea. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between sleep apnea and heart disease and what can be done to lessen its impact on cardiovascular health. 

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that leads people to temporarily stop breathing throughout the night. Sleep apnea is not very common in individuals with healthy body composition — on the other hand, this form of sleep-disordered breathing is more likely in those who also have obesity.

The sudden asphyxiation from sleep apnea causes your body to wake up throughout the night in order to gasp for air. Typically this occurs throughout the night and can prevent the restful and restorative deep sleep your body needs. 

Typically, doctors will prescribe a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device for individuals with sleep apnea to help keep the upper airway open and maintain good airflow to the lungs. 

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can be detrimental to your overall well-being and contribute to excessive fatigue and daytime sleepiness. 

Some common symptoms include: 

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Waking up gasping for air
  • High blood pressure
  • Observed bouts of apnea during sleep
  • Excessive snoring. 

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are two distinct types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). Obstructive sleep apnea occurs as a result of a physically restricted or occluded airway, while central sleep apnea is caused by a faulty signal sent from the brain to the diaphragm, an organ that helps control breathing. 

OSA is the more common form of sleep apnea, and it tends to be caused by excess body weight. Individuals who are obese can store fat in their necks that can press on the trachea while they are sleeping, which can block the flow of air in and out of the lungs. Severe OSA that is left untreated can lead to severe health complications. 

CSA is less common but can still occur in a number of people. Some risk factors associated with central apneas are heart arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, extended CPAP therapy for the treatment of OSA, and problems that affect the brain stem. 

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a term that groups together many interrelated cardiovascular disorders. These can include coronary artery disease, vascular disease, heart rhythm disorders, heart failure, and ​​structural heart diseases, such as heart valve disorders. 

Heart diseases place your body in a precarious place, as they can reduce the efficiency with which blood circulates throughout your body. When the body is unable to circulate blood effectively, your tissues may not get the resources they need to function adequately. Over time, these can lead to severe health consequences. 

These disorders can also increase your chances of a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. 

What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

The symptoms of heart disease can vary significantly from person to person. 

Some of the most common symptoms associated with heart disease include: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Shortness of breath with light activity
  • Swelling in the lower extremities
  • Fluid retention
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness. 

What Causes Heart Disease?

Heart disease impacts a large proportion of the U.S. adult population — but it is also one of the most preventable disease categories. This is because many of the causes of heart disease have to do with lifestyle factors. 

Some factors that can contribute to heart disease include: 

  • Poor dietary choices
  • Physical inactivity
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Excessive drinking
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Chronic stress

Nearly all of these factors can be removed with lifestyle changes, which can significantly reduce the chances of developing heart disease. 

While most causes of heart disease are avoidable, some are not. Conditions and genetic predispositions you are born with cannot be avoided — but living a heart-healthy lifestyle could help to support your heart and lessen the impact of these factors on your cardiovascular system. 

How Can Sleep Impact Heart Health?

When people think of ways they can improve their heart health, they most likely think about doing things such as aerobic exercise or avoiding foods high in saturated fats and sodium. All of these choices can help to support a healthy heart, but one factor that oftentimes goes unnoticed is sleep. 

Sleep plays an important regulatory role within your body. The body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, is responsible for the regulation of many bodily processes. Getting quality sleep on a consistent basis can allow your circadian rhythm to work at its best, which can help regulate your blood pressure, alertness, and energy levels. 

Poor sleep habits and poor sleep quality can have the inverse effect on heart health. Getting poor sleep means that you will likely have less energy throughout the day, which can, in turn, lead to inactivity and poor heart health. Sleeplessness can also elevate stress hormone levels, which can have a detrimental impact on your cardiovascular and heart health. 

How Are Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease Related?

Sleep apnea and heart disease have a complex relationship with one another. When you look at the risk factors for both sleep apnea and heart disease, it is easy to see that there is an immense overlap. 

Individuals that are obese, have type 2 diabetes, or live a sedentary lifestyle are all at higher risk for developing sleep apnea and heart disease. At the same time, the effects of sleep apnea can also have a detrimental effect on heart health. 

Below is a deeper dive to better understand how sleep apnea can impact heart health. 

Does Sleep Apnea Cause Heart Disease?

Heart disease tends to develop over time as a result of many compounding variables. For example, low activity paired with a diet high in saturated fats can cause conditions like plaque buildup and atherosclerosis. This can then contribute to vascular disorders like coronary artery disease (CAD) and peripheral artery disease (PAD). 

These variables can make it difficult to say exactly what causes the development of heart disease. The likelihood that sleep apnea alone causes heart disease is not very high, but the combined effects of poor oxygenation, poor sleep quality, and the presence of typical comorbidities like obesity can work with sleep apnea to contribute to heart disease. 

Can Sleep Apnea Worsen Heart Disease?

While it is unlikely that sleep apnea alone would cause heart disease, it may lead to worsening heart health if it goes without treatment. Poor oxygenation paired with poor sleep can lead to an increased risk of developing further health problems that can worsen heart disease. 

The Bottom Line

Sleep apnea and heart disease have very similar risk factors, and it is not uncommon to have both of these disorders simultaneously. If this is the case, you should seek out medical care to address your sleep apnea and start a treatment plan to help with heart disease. 

Cardiac rehab is a great option to help with heart disease. This form of treatment utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to help people make lasting lifestyle changes to better support their hearts. A typical program includes a combination of customized monitored exercise routines, health education, and education on how your daily choices can impact your heart health. 

Carda Health is a virtual cardiac rehab provider that provides these same services, all from the comfort of your own home. If your doctor thinks you may benefit from an exercise-based approach to managing your heart disease, consider Carda Health to get support from the comforts of your home. 


Heart Disease Facts | cdc.gov

Obesity, Sleep Apnea, and Hypertension | American Heart Association

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Diagnosis | American Lung Association

Central sleep apnoea syndrome (CSA) | National Health Service (NHS)l

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