What Are The Long Term Effects Of Untreated Sleep Apnea?

Leaving your sleep apnea untreated can impact  long-term physical and mental health. Understanding the effects of sleep apnea on the body and brain is important in minimising your risks.

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Long Term Effects of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can lead to several long-term effects on a patient’s physical and mental health. In order to treat patients’ health most effectively as they look for treatment, physicians need to be aware of the total-life impact sleep apnea has on a patient. 

Understanding the effects of sleep apnea on the body and brain is important in minimising risks. While finding a way to stop obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the best solution, additional measures can be taken to help lower the risks and manage symptoms sleep apnea can cause. 

Chronic Fatigue

The most common long-term effect of sleep apnea is chronic fatigue. For a patient with this condition, their prolonged exhaustion extends to cognitive fatigue that impacts memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities. 

With the inability to perform tasks as they would when rested, a long-time sufferer of sleep apnea struggles to keep up with daily responsibilities. They may be at risk of activities like drowsy driving, which can jeopardize both their health and the lives of others on the road

Greater risk of Diabetes

Someone with OSA is at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if they aren’t obese. Although roughly 20% of patients with OSA are obese by medical standards, research suggests that all patients with OSA could be at risk of developing diabetes due to elevated blood sugar levels. 

Studies have found a link between obstructive sleep apnea and abnormal glucose metabolism. The metabolic impact of sleep apnea may also alter a person’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. 

Some may gain a few additional kilos which increases their risk of type 2 diabetes, though doctors have noted cases of the condition emerging in non-obese patients as well. 

Due to the effects of sleep apnea on the metabolism, reductions in insulin sensitivity without an alteration in production levels could put patients at a higher risk of developing diabetes

Heart Attack and Cardiovascular Complications

A patient with obstructive sleep apnea may go on to develop heart problems, including an irregular heartbeat, hypertension (high blood pressure), and artery disease. For a chronic sufferer of OSA, there is a 50% chance they will develop high blood pressure. This can significantly elevate their risk of associated medical conditions, namely cardiovascular disease. 

Research in the Journal of the American Heart Association has found that obstructive sleep apnea increases patients’ risk of coronary artery disease, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. Studies suggest that 40% of men and 60% of women with cardiovascular disease also have OSA.

Depression

Due to the negative impacts on their quality of life, sleep apnea patients are more likely to develop clinical depression. Depression, marked by a chronic low mood, negative thought patterns, and demotivation, is one of the most common mental illnesses worldwide, and many patients with OSA present with major depressive disorder (MDD) symptoms. 

Because MDD alters a person’s emotional perception, they are more likely to have a consistently negative outlook and poor self-image than someone who does not have depression. 

The parts of the brain associated with processing input are shown to be more active for negative stimuli than happy stimuli among patients with MDD. Current evidence suggests roughly 18% of patients with OSA also suffer from MDD. Luckily, for many patients, symptoms improve drastically with the integration of CPAP therapy.

The ongoing effects of poor sleep quality and lack of restful sleep on mental health put patients at risk of poor mental health. In addition to the mental effects, sleep apnea also has a serious effect on someone’s social life.

The social consequences of being chronically exhausted from sleep apnea can result in less social support, greater interpersonal struggles, and, as a result, worse emotional well-being for the patient.

Neurocognitive Decline

Patients with OSA have worse cognitive performance than people without sleep apnea. Cognitive impairment in obstructive sleep apnea patients may increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as they get older. 

Studies have found that OSA can result in permanent damage in several core regions of the brain, mostly due to poor oxygenation during obstructive episodes. This hypoxia also contributes to hypertension and widespread inflammation.

In their everyday lives, patients with obstructive sleep apnea may suffer from cognitive effects such as difficulty understanding input, concentrating, problem-solving, and recalling information.

While all of these long-term effects are concerning, many are able to be mitigated with secondary interventions. In addition, patients should speak to their doctors about a sleep apnea assessment and identifying other potential risks to their health. 

We can also help. At SomnoMed, we offer a CPAP alternative. Learn more about what we do here: https://somnomed.co/en/patients/effective-cpap-alternative/how-it-works/