Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Many people, especially the internet generation, first heard the term “Sleep Apnea” in late 2016.

December 2016 to be specific. That’s because he word became directly linked to the death of Carrie Fisher, or as many fans knew her, Princess Leia.

google trends sleep apnea
You can probably work out the date of that spike.

One study estimated that 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 30 and 70 has mild to severe sleep apnea.

But what exactly is sleep apnea and why does it matter?

Well, as one doctor put it;

it’s not the sleep apnea itself but its downstream effects that kill people. “Sleep apnea is a time bomb,”

John Bouzis , speaking to the Washington Post

What? Kill?

That’s right, sleep apnea is a silent killer in the night (no pun intended). And because of this its easy to miss the opportunity to diagnose and get adequate help for.

There is no need to panic. But what should you be weary of when it comes to sleep apnea, and how can you reduce your chances of falling into the 1 in 4 statistic?

What Is Sleep Apnea?

There are variations of severity to sleep apnea and while this should not be simplified, there are key characteristics to “apnea” that can be defined in a sentence or two:

“Apnea” occurs when there is a blockage of the airways caused by the relaxation of muscles and soft tissues in the throat.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Often times the first person to notice sleep apnea is a partner or someone other than the person affected – because they’re asleep.

The most obvious symptoms are:

Loud snoring

Forceful, uncomfortable breathing

Silent periods which appear to be interrupted breathing. Shortly followed by gasping or snorting.

The risk is that due to the commonality of these “symptoms” it is easy to ignore them as signs of a serious sleeping disorder. It really only takes one instance of severe sleep apnea to lead to death.

Ok so now we know a little more about spotting sleep apnea…

Who is generally affected by sleep apnea?

Anyone can be affected. But doctors have identified common linking attributes that have lead to a higher incidence of sleep apnea occurring.

Being male

Interestingly, the rate at which men display and are subsequently diagnosed with sleep apnea is much higher than in women. In fact – sleep apnea was originally discovered due to experiments on men.

with that being said –

Postmenopausal women are up to three times more likely than pre-menopausal women to have OSA, likely due to decreased levels of female hormones.


Being overweight in the negative sense usually means having more body fat than is suitable for your frame. Body fat is deposited all over the body including the neck muscles as well as around the stomach all of which place undue pressure on throat muscles, potentially making it harder to breathe.

Deviated Septum

Many people have a deviated septum and do not experience sleep apnea. But the presence of a deviated septum increases the occurrence of sleep apnea due to the strain in the nasal passage and airways.

Middle age (40-60+)

While SA can occur at any age as is in line with some of the earliest studies, it becomes more common with advanced age.

Large neck

It’s been noted that men with a collar size greater than 43cm (17 inches) have an increased risk of developing the disorder. The reasoning is likely similar to the evidence surrounding fatty deposits and narrowed airways.

Sleeping Pills / Sedative medication

There has been some evidence to link increased use of sleeping medication with a higher occurrence of sleep apnea. whether or not sleeping pills are a cause or taken as an effect of poor sleep quality is not yet confirmed – many sleep apnea sufferers are unaware of their apnea, even while taking sleeping pills.

The list is not extensive.

Complications of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

While sleep apnea can lead to death in sleep, there are other complications albeit less severe.

Living with and allowing sleep apnea to linger with have severe impacts on ones quality of life. By doing this one allows themselves to:

  • Develop increased chances of having a stroke or heart attack
  • Increase chances of developing high blood pressure
  • Risk a diagnosis of Type-2 diabetes (Due to the prevalence of SA with obesity, its not currently known if diabetes is entirely a cause, effect, or both.)
  • Develop and/or worsen effects of ADHD
  • Depression
  • Headaches

Outside of these physical effects, there are a multitude of mental and psychological problems that can lower your quality of life.


The good thing about treatment for this condition, is they can also be used as a prevention method, to stop the progression into the symptoms.

There are many ways to get help for sleep apnea starting with the various tests used to diagnose the condition. The main being a polysomnograph test described on Webmd:

A polysomnogram — or sleep study — is a multiple-component test that electronically transmits and records specific physical activities while you sleep. The recordings are analyzed by a qualified sleep specialist to determine whether or not you have sleep apnea or another type of sleep disorder

Webmd excerpt

Aside from this there are other methods used to check for he disorder:

The tests used to diagnose Sleep Apnea
The tests used to diagnose Sleep Apnea

After diagnosis you find that SA is an entirely treatable condition with many treatment options that can lower the chance of the symptoms.

Full Face Mask Universal Adjustable for Sleep

RespLabs Full Face CPAP Mask Liners

These options for OSA include:

  • Making lifestyle changes –  losing excess weight (a good starting point is to check your BMI), reducing alcohol intake and sleeping on your side;
  • Investing in a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device – these devices prevent your airway narrowing while you sleep by delivering a constant supply of compressed air through a mask;
  • Wearing a mandibular advancement device (MAD) – this gum shield-like device fits around your teeth, holding your jaw and tongue forward to increase the space at the back of your throat while you sleep.
  • Get better Quality Sleep Reduce caffeine in the afternoon, go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and reduce screen time in bedroom.

Surgery may also be an option if OSA is thought to be the result of a physical problem that can be corrected surgically, such as an unusual inner neck structure.

For the majority of people surgery won’t be a necessary option and should only be considered as a last resort if other treatments haven’t helped.

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