Nearly 30 million adults in the United States experience disturbances in their sleep cycles as a direct result of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition marked by pauses in breathing during sleep. With many cases remaining undiagnosed and untreated, this sleep disorder poses a major threat to the overall health of affected individuals – including causing their cells to age more rapidly.
While sleep apnea tends to target older adults, men, postmenopausal women, and those who smoke or struggle with obesity, it does not discriminate and manages to affect a wide range of individuals. A variety of factors, including lifestyle and environment, determine the risk of developing sleep apnea. Additionally, research links sleep apnea to a number of health complications within a multitude of individuals such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression. Snoring, sometimes accompanied by choking sounds or pauses in breathing, as well as symptoms of sleep deprivation during the day signal that sleep apnea may be impeding on not only your rest but also your overall health. New research indicates that the myriad of disruptive symptoms related to untreated sleep apnea may now include accelerated cell aging, especially in women.
The Connection Between Aging and Sleep Apnea
In 2019 Harvard University conducted a study investigating the relationship between epigenetic age acceleration (early aging of DNA within the cells) and sleep-disordered breathing among 622 adults. The research consisted of polysomnography (a sleep study) and “DNA methylation [in which] a marker for epigenetic age acceleration was measured in blood samples.”
The study concludes that severe sleep-disordered breathing correlates with early aging of DNA within cells. Further, the results found that out of all sleep-related conditions causing airway blockage in the throat, the number of obstructive sleep apnea cases outnumbered all other chronic sleep disorder occurrences. This comes as especially unfavorable news for women, who demonstrated stronger associations between their sleep disorders and epigenetic age accelerations than their male counterparts, despite typically exhibiting lower sleep disorder related health risks.
According to the lead author of the study, the correct treatment of conditions like sleep apnea can not only help improve health and decrease the risk of developing other serious health conditions, but can also reverse the consequences of epigenetic age acceleration. The sooner that individuals receive a sleep apnea diagnosis, the sooner they can begin combating the wide range of health issues, including premature aging, that accompany obstructive sleep apnea.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Multiple variations of sleep apnea wreak havoc on sleep cycles, the most common of which is obstructive sleep apnea. Individuals who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea experience episodes of choking or gasping for air throughout the night, as well as pauses in breathing. These incidents occur as a result of an individual’s upper throat muscles relaxing, causing airways to tighten and ultimately blocking air from freely flowing into the lungs. The brain responds to a lack of oxygen by signaling to the affected person that they need to wake up, an incident that can occur anywhere from a couple of times a night to 30 times per hour.
More often than not, severe sleep deprivation accompanies obstructive sleep apnea. Many affected individuals cannot recall every brief period in which they wake up throughout the night, but the numerous disturbances to their sleep cycle prove evident during the day. These periods, however short-lived, make it impossible for your body to achieve deep levels of restorative sleep. Healthy sleep is critical for repairing tissue, growing muscle, and synthesizing hormones. Without healthy sleep, the human body loses the ability to adequately function during the day.
Other symptoms that may be indications of obstructive sleep apnea include loud snoring, difficulty staying asleep or experiencing insomnia, shortened attention span, waking up with dry mouth or sore throat, forgetfulness, and mood changes.
What Happens When Sleep Apnea Remains Untreated?
The risk of developing other serious health conditions increases the longer that sleep apnea remains untreated. Those suffering from untreated sleep apnea run the risk of developing more serious symptoms including, but not limited to, non-alcoholic liver disease, depression, dementia, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Faced with the challenge of juggling everyday life, individuals often disregard the early symptoms of sleep apnea as physical responses to everyday stressors. Sleep tends to take the backseat behind diet and exercise when prioritizing health when in fact, the brain and body require healthy sleep to function.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, it’s time to contact a sleep specialist for a consultation. You are only one sleep study away from identifying the underlying source of your sleep-related hardships.