Can Sleep Apnea Be Fatal? Understanding The Risks & Consequences

Do you often wake up feeling restless or sleepy? Do you snore loudly or gasp for air while sleeping? If so, you might suffer from sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

It occurs when your breathing is interrupted or stopped during sleep, leading to poor sleep quality and a range of health problems. 

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at sleep apnea and what you need to know to stay healthy and well-rested.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. This condition can lead to frequent breaks in sleep, causing daytime sleepiness and fatigue. 

There are two main types: Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes blocked, typically due to the collapse of soft tissue in the back of the throat while sleeping, and central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. 

If untreated, sleep apnea can contribute to several health issues, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

Types of Sleep Apnea

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): 

This is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissues in the throat relax and block the airway during sleep, causing pauses in breathing.

2. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA):

In this type, the brain fails to send signals to the muscles that control breathing, resulting in temporary pauses in breathing during sleep. CSA is less common but can be equally as dangerous as OSA.

3. Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea: 

This type is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea. It involves periods of CSA, followed by periods of OSA.

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

Untreated sleep apnea can pose several health risks, some of which are quite serious. Here’s a detailed look at some of the major health risks associated with untreated sleep apnea:

Heart Problems:

The association between sleep apnea and a variety of heart issues is closely tied to metabolic syndrome.

This is because the condition leads to intermittent drops in blood oxygen levels, elevating blood pressure and placing stress on the cardiovascular system.

People with untreated sleep apnea are significantly more likely to have heart attacks. The condition is also associated with atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, and other heart diseases.


Studies have shown a strong link between untreated sleep apnea and strokes. Repeated episodes of low oxygen levels during sleep lead to changes in the heart and blood vessels that increase the risk of stroke.


Sleep apnea can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It affects the body’s use of insulin, leading to insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes.


Mental health can also be affected by untreated sleep apnea. Chronic sleep disruption and the resulting fatigue can lead to feelings of depression, irritability, and other mental health issues.

Some studies suggest that people with sleep apnea are significantly more likely to suffer from depression than those without the condition.

Who Does Sleep Apnea Affect?

Sleep apnea, affects a wide range of individuals, with certain demographics being more susceptible.

This piece will delve into the specifics of who is most commonly affected by sleep apnea, including discussions on gender, age, and ethnicity.

  • Gender

This condition is more common in men than in women. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely to have sleep apnea than women. However, women increase their risk if they’re overweight or have gone through menopause.

  • Age

Sleep apnea occurs significantly more often in older adults. Before age 50, it’s more common in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). After age 50, it affects women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) at the same rate. The prevalence of sleep apnea increases as people get older.

  • Ethnicity

Some studies suggest that African Americans are at a higher risk of sleep apnea than whites.

  • Prevalence in Population

Approximately 20% of adults experience at least mild symptoms of sleep apnea. An estimated 1 in 15 people present with moderate to severe symptoms of this sleep disorder.

The estimated prevalence in North America is approximately 15 to 30 percent in males and 10 to 15 percent in females.

What Are The Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea?

Individuals with sleep apnea, a common but frequently ignored sleep disorder, can experience significant disruptions to their sleep cycle and overall health.

This condition, marked by recurrent breathing pauses during sleep, leads to a spectrum of symptoms that can differ among sleep apnea patients.

The symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness: This symptom manifests as constant fatigue or sleepiness during the day due to interrupted sleep at night.
  2. Loud snoring: Not all individuals who snore have sleep apnea, but it is a common symptom for those affected. It’s particularly noticeable when it’s accompanied by silent breathing pauses and choking or gasping sounds.
  3. Observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep: These are moments when breathing ceases entirely for short periods, usually noticed by another person.
  4. Difficulty concentrating during the day and mood changes: These can include depression, anxiety, and issues with memory and cognitive function.
  5. Frequent awakening during the night: Often, individuals may wake up frequently, sometimes to use the bathroom, or they may wake up suddenly with a sensation of choking or gasping.
  6. Morning headaches and dry mouth: These symptoms are thought to result from the reduced oxygen levels in the blood and the strain on the body from disrupted sleep.
  7. Restless sleep or insomnia: Some individuals may have difficulty staying asleep, tossing and turning in bed, or experiencing restless or fitful sleep.
  8. Frequent nighttime urination or nocturia: This could be due to the body’s response to the stress of repeated episodes of low oxygen levels.

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it’s essential to seek medical advice. 

Early detection and treatment of sleep apnea can help manage the condition and prevent potential health complications. 

How Sleep Apnea Disrupts Your Sleep Cycle

Sleep apnea is a pervasive sleep disorder that disrupts the sleep cycle, leading to serious health consequences. 

Here’s how sleep apnea affects your sleep cycle:

  • Normal Sleep Cycle: A normal sleep cycle consists of four to five cycles of non-REM and REM sleep. Non-REM sleep includes three stages from light sleep (stage 1) to deep sleep (stage 3). After non-REM sleep, you enter REM sleep, the stage when dreaming occurs. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes.
  • Impact of Sleep Apnea: In sleep apnea, especially Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), relaxed throat muscles cause the airway to collapse, disrupting the smooth flow of air. This leads to a drop in oxygen levels, which triggers your brain to wake you up so you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don’t remember it.
  • Disrupted Sleep Cycle: These frequent awakenings caused by sleep apnea prevent you from reaching or maintaining the deep sleep stage. You spend more time in light sleep (stage 1), which is not as restorative. As a result, you may feel tired, even after a full night’s sleep.
  • Impact on Health: Persistent disruption of the sleep cycle can have long-term health impacts, including daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other health problems.

Serious Health Risks of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Undiagnosed sleep apnea, a commonly occurring but often unnoticed sleep disorder, can drastically interfere with an individual’s sleep pattern and overall well-being. 

This condition is defined by recurrent breathing disruptions during sleep, leading to a variety of symptoms that may differ among individuals.

  1. Cardiovascular Problems: The increased risk associated with untreated sleep apnea is significant. It is linked with elevated blood pressure, potentially complicating its management with medication. 
  1. Type 2 Diabetes: Studies have shown an association between sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes.
  1. Excessive Daytime Fatigue: The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make restorative sleep impossible, leading to daytime fatigue. This could potentially lead to accidents, such as falling asleep while driving.
  1. Shortened Lifespan: Sleep apnea has been linked to a shortened lifespan due to the strain it places on the body and the associated health complications.
  1. Worsening of Symptoms Over Time: If sleep apnea is not treated, symptoms like daytime fatigue and irritability will get worse4. The condition itself can also progress, influenced by changes in risk factors.
  1. Potential for Other Health Problems: Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a range of other health problems, including chronic fatigue and stress on the heart, which can have potentially deadly consequences.

Untreated Sleep Apnea And Its Link To Higher Mortality Rates: An Examination Of Scientific Studies

Numerous studies have established a link between severe, untreated sleep apnea and higher mortality rates. 

  • A study published in Springer highlighted that sleep apnea is a risk for cardiovascular disease and an increase in death from any cause. The risk of death increases by 16.1% per hour with untreated moderate to severe sleep apnea.
  • In another study featured in PLOS ONE, it was found that sleep apnea leads to higher morbidity and mortality. This study also revealed a strong link between the severity of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and higher morbidity and mortality rates.
  • Furthermore, a report in ScienceDirect discussed the concern of high morbidity, mortality, and healthcare costs associated with sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes, indicating a link between the severity of OSA and increased health risks.

In conclusion, these studies underscore the critical need to diagnose and treat sleep apnea promptly to mitigate its severe health risks, including significantly higher mortality rates.

Understanding Sleep Apnea: Diagnosis, And Treatment Options


Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed through a series of tests that monitor various aspects of your sleep. 

Here are some of the common tests:

A. Polysomnography

Often referred to as a “sleep study,” this is the gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea. 

This test is performed overnight in a sleep laboratory and involves monitoring brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing, as well as eye and leg movements. 

It also includes audio and video recordings to capture snoring and other symptoms.

B. Home Sleep Apnea Test

If you can’t do polysomnography, your doctor might provide you with a home sleep apnea test instead. This is a simplified version of the polysomnography that you can do at home. It tracks your breathing, oxygen levels, and breathing effort while worn during sleep. However, it doesn’t fully capture what’s monitored in full polysomnography.

C. Medical & Family History

Doctors will also take into account your medical and family history, along with a physical examination, to diagnose sleep apnea5.

Keep in mind that while these tests can be helpful in diagnosing sleep apnea, they are only part of the picture. Your doctor will also consider your symptoms and other factors when making a diagnosis.


A. Lifestyle Changes

The first line of defense in treating sleep apnea often involves lifestyle changes. This can include weight loss for those who are overweight, as excess weight can contribute to the narrowing of the airway. 

Similarly, quitting smoking can help, as smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway. Positional therapy, which involves altering sleeping positions to improve breathing, can also be beneficial.

B. CPAP Machines

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. The CPAP device uses a mask that fits over your nose and/or mouth and gently blows air into your throat to keep the airway open during sleep.

C. Oral Appliances

Another treatment option involves the use of oral appliances designed to keep the throat open. These devices, which resemble sports mouth guards, help to keep the airway open by repositioning the jaw or tongue.

D. Surgery

In cases where other treatments have failed or aren’t tolerated, surgery may be an option. The goal of surgery for sleep apnea is to remove the obstruction in the airway that’s causing the condition. 

This could involve procedures such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (removal of excess tissue in the throat), maxillomandibular advancement (repositioning of the jaw), or even tracheostomy (creating a new air passage).

It’s important to remember that while these treatments can be highly effective, they require consistent use and changes in lifestyle.

Regular follow-ups with healthcare providers are crucial to monitor progress and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

Overcoming Sleep Apnea: Anthony’s Journey Towards Better Sleep & Health

Anthony, a recent knee replacement patient found himself struggling with sleep in the aftermath of his surgery.

“I was restless, uncomfortable, and I knew something was off,” Anthony recalls.

His journey towards better sleep began with an overnight sleep study at MMC’s Sleep Medicine.

“The results were enlightening,” he says, remembering his surprise when the doctors diagnosed him with sleep apnea. “I thought my restlessness was because of my knee surgery. I never considered that it could be a sleep disorder.”

Anthony’s life took a turn after the diagnosis. He had to adjust to using a CPAP machine at night, a change he initially found challenging. “It was strange having this machine next to my bed, but I was determined to get better sleep,” he shares.

Over time, Anthony started noticing improvements. “My energy levels were up, the headaches were gone, and I felt more focused,” he explains. The changes didn’t go unnoticed at home either. “He was like a different person,” his wife adds, “More alert, happier, and less tired.”

Anthony’s story is a testament to the transformative power of proper diagnosis and treatment. “Sleep apnea changed my life, but seeking help changed it for the better,” Anthony concludes. 

Today, he is a passionate advocate for sleep health awareness and encourages others facing similar struggles to seek help.

Why Is It Important To Seek Professional Help?

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can significantly affect your health and quality of life. If overlooked, it can lead to various health issues, including Cardiovascular Diseases, Mental Health Problems, and Life-threatening Complications

Key symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Loud, disruptive snoring
  • Long pauses in breathing
  • Repeated nighttime awakenings
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble thinking
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

Even mild symptoms can lead to severe health problems, such as arrhythmias, making it vital to seek professional help.

A sleep specialist is equipped to diagnose and treat sleep disorders including Sleep Apnea, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), and Insomnia.

Neglecting sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea, can escalate your chances of cardiac complications, detrimentally affect your immediate and future health, and lower your overall life quality.

Hence, if you’re suspecting any signs of sleep apnea, it’s not only advantageous but also vital for your well-being to seek professional medical assistance.

By collaborating with professionals to manage the impact of sleep apnea on your daily routine, you can improve your life quality and health.

Remember, your sleep is integral to your overall health, and any disruptions should be promptly addressed with professional care.