I ran across an article today with the hyperbolic headline “7 Warning Signs That You May Be at Risk of a Heart Attack.” I truly hate headlines like this because they almost always lead to nonscientific blather. This article, from Men’s Health, suggests you may want to be concerned if you are exhausted (who isn’t), have erectile dysfunction (if your blood vessels down there are damaged, there’s a good chance the ones near your heart could be damaged as well), you have leg or hip cramps (again, blood flow issues), you’re bloated (too many beers?), and a few other seemingly innocuous maladies. But one potential symptom caught my attention and should catch your attention too — snoring.
Snoring may seem harmless, but it could mean you have sleep apnea and that could be a big problem. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts and that can have major consequences for your heart health. In fact, obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, the risk of stroke by 60%, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%.
Let’s be honest, most of us snore once in a while or even all the time. The person who shares your bed has likely let you know you’re making noise with a late-night nudge or perhaps an occasional punch in the nose if it gets bad (kidding). You probably know if you snore, especially if you’ve ever woken yourself up from it. But you probably don’t know if you have sleep apnea unless you’ve been tested for it. A sleep apnea evaluation usually involves overnight monitoring at a sleep center although these days there are even some at-home sleep tests.
A few years prior to my heart attack my wife finally insisted I talk to my doctor about my snoring. Like a lot of people, I associated snoring with obesity and figured mine was just a minor case. But it had become so prevalent that oftentimes I’d wake up in the morning to find my wife sleeping on the sofa because I was keeping her up. I agreed to see my doctor about it, for her sake, but had I been paying more attention to the research I might have taken it a lot more seriously a lot earlier on.
There is a clear connection between sleep apnea and heart disease. Here’s a quote from an article on the American Heart Association’s website:
“The evidence is very strong for the relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally, so people really need to know that.”— Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham
A Google search for “sleep apnea and heart disease” brings up tons of articles and links to studies that show a clear connection. Unfortunately for me, while I discovered my sleep apnea before I had a heart attack I didn’t know it was a potential symptom of heart disease and therefore it didn’t raise any suspicions that would have caused me to get my heart checked out in time.
When I had my sleep study it turned out I had an apnea event (literally stopped breathing) about 80 times per hour. Think about that for a minute. That is more than once per minute. Of course that is going to cause strain on the heart!
Here’s some information on sleep apnea event occurrences. Normal is fewer than 5 breathing events per hour of sleep. Mild sleep apnea: 5 to 14.9 breathing events per hour of sleep. Moderate sleep apnea: 15 to 29.9 breathing events per hour of sleep. Severe sleep apnea: 30 or more breathing events per hour of sleep.
I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and nobody told me it could be associated with heart disease so I didn’t immediately go get checked out by a cardiologist. That seems like malpractice, but if I’ve learned anything over the past decade it’s that we have to be our own health advocates because doctors are overworked and under-educated in terms of knowing the latest science.
I ended up with a C-PAP machine, which applies mild air pressure on a continuous basis to keep the airways continuously open while I sleep. I have adapted well to it and use it religiously, every night. I hate having to use it, but using it means I no longer stop breathing 80 times an hour. I get a better night’s sleep and frankly, I feel safer using it. It’s a pain to travel with, but someday I’ll spring for a travel-sized machine as well.
So yes, snoring can be a symptom of heart disease or an impending heart attack. Now that you know this, you have no excuse for not talking to your doctor about your snoring. Trust me, it just might save your life.