Sleep Apnea Harder To Detect, More Dangerous For Women
A new study from the UCLA School of Nursing has discovered more bad news for women with sleep apnea. Researchers discovered that the body’s autonomic responses, which are responsible for functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and sweating, are weaker in individuals with obstructive sleep apnea. These findings are true in both genders but are even more pronounced in women.
Although they may appear healthy with, for example, normal resting blood pressure, women with obstructive sleep apnea tend to exhibit more subtle symptoms. Often this means their sleep disorder is missed and symptoms are misattributed to other conditions. Paul Macey, lead researcher, said, “We now know that sleep apnea is a precursor to bigger health issues and for women in particular, the results could be deadly.”
Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that causes an individual’s breathing to be interrupted throughout the night. This is a serious health issue, and sometimes occurs hundreds of times in a night. Each time an incident occurs, the blood oxygen level drops and can eventually cause damage to healthy cells throughout the body. More than 20 million adults in the United States are affected by this condition. In some cases it is linked to serious health issues and even early death. Unfortunately for women, they are much less likely to be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.
In this particular study, men and women with and without obstructive sleep apnea were subjected to a series of three tasks to measure their heart rates. The first task, called the Valsalva maneuver, required subjects to breathe out hard while keeping their mouth closed. Secondly, subjects were asked to perform a hand-grip challenge. Last of all was the cold pressor challenge. For this task, individuals placed their right foot into almost freezing-cold water for one minute.
For all three tests, patients with obstructive sleep apnea had lower and delayed heart rate changes when compared with the healthy control individuals. The difference from the controls was even greater in women with sleep apnea.
“The heart-rate results for these tests show that the impact of sleep apnea, while bad in men, is more severe in women,” Macey said. “This may mean that women are more likely to develop symptoms of heart disease, as well as other consequences of poor adaptation to daily physical tasks. Early detection and treatment may be needed to protect against damage to the brain and other organs”
Researchers plan to continue their study by testing to see if the autonomic responses improve with the conventional therapy of continuous positive airway pressure. This treatment enables patients to breathe easier during sleep by using a machine.
The researchers also intend to study the benefits of other types of treatments. This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Nursing Research, and appeared October 23 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.