Spanish researchers have reported that severe sleep apnea doubles the risk of stroke in elderly people, who otherwise have no known risk factors for stroke.
Sleep apnea is a disorder wherein the breathing stops or gets very shallow while sleeping and enough air cannot flow into your lungs through your mouth and nose even though you try to breathe. When this happens, the amount of oxygen in your blood may drop. Normal breaths then start again with a loud snort or choking sound.
Earlier studies conducted on finding the link between sleep apnea and stroke had focused more on middle-aged people rather than elderly, but it's the elderly people who are at greater risk of developing stroke due to sleep apnea according to Dr. Roberto Munoz, the studies lead researcher.
Dr. Munoz's team analyzed data from 394 people aged between 70 and 100 years old participating in a sleep study. None of them participating in the study had had strokes at the start of the study. They monitored the patients' overnight breathing patterns over a period of 6 years and found that 20 of the participants had stroke. The found that patients with severe sleep apnea had a 2.5-fold increased risk of stroke, and they also found that males are more likely to be affected than females.
Dr. Munoz said, "sleep apnea is two to three times more common in the elderly compared to middle-aged people; however, typical symptoms of sleep apnea, such as loud snoring or excessive daytime sleepiness, are less prevalent in the elderly compared to middle-aged people. We should be aware of these symptoms, and specifically look for the presence of repetitive breathing pauses in our patients and relatives."
The findings of the study are to be published in the medical journal Stroke.
Dr. Thomas M. Hemmen, an assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of California, acknowledged that treating sleep apnea is important in reducing stroke and noted that treatment for sleep apnea is becoming standard in reducing the risk of both heart attack and stroke. "People with sleep apnea are much more aggressively treated with respiratory aids during the night," he said.
People who are most likely to have sleep apnea are people who snore loudly, are overweight, have high blood pressure or have family history the disease. Excessive daytime sleeping is very common feature in sleep apnea.
Treatment for sleep apnea includes behavioral changes such as losing weight if person is overweight. Even a little weight loss can improve symptoms. Sleeping on the side, which helps keep the throat open, is another treatment for sleep apnea. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A mouthpiece to the keep the airway open maybe helpful in people with mild sleep apnea. Some people with sleep apnea might benefit from surgery.