Belkys Veloz fears she will die in her sleep.
The 41-year-old mother of three has sleep apnea, a condition that causes breathing interruptions during sleep due to a tracheal blockage.
Doctors, however, say Veloz will not die from a temporary halt of her breathing. Rather, they are more concerned about other health problems spawned by the sleeping disorder — high blood pressure, a heart condition and a mini stroke she had five years ago.
Studies have shown that sleep apnea is linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions and strokes. Most recently, sleep apnea is correlated to a higher risk of cancer. A study of 5,600 patients at seven sleep clinics in Spain indicated that those with severe sleep apnea have about double the risk of cancer-caused deaths than those without it.
“We used to think, ‘Let’s get enough sleep so we feel refreshed and rejuvenated.’ But now we know if something is interrupting your sleep at night, you might be tired and cranky but you are also much more at risk for all of these health diseases,” said Dr. Timothy Grant, medical director of Baptist Sleep Center at Sunset, in Miami.
The breathing interruptions lead the brain to signal that it is not getting enough oxygen, prompting the heart to pump more blood. That elevates blood pressure, said Dr. Belen Esparis, medical director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. While blood pressure usually is lowest at night and in the morning, it is highest in the morning for those with sleep apnea — and remains high throughout the day.
The high blood pressure, in turn, causes small blood vessels in the brain to rupture, causing a stroke. And each time a sleep-apnea patient is jerked out of deep slumber, the heart is strained, leading to cardiac complications.
“That up and down, up and down every night, puts a strain on your heart when it should be resting,” said Esparis, adding that such sleep interruptions may occur as often as 50 times an hour.
Esparis said sleep apnea is the second most common sleep disorder after insomnia. Overall, between 50 and 70 million U.S. adults were estimated to have a sleep or wakefulness disorder in 2009, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Report released in 2011.
Esparis groups sleep disorders into seven main divisions:
• Breathing disorders such as sleep apnea.
• Hypersomnia and narcolepsy, in which a person falls into frequent and uncontrollable periods of deep sleep.
• Circadian rhythm disorders, a disorder where the natural body clock of going to sleep and waking up at certain times is disrupted. Commonly, it is seen in older people and teenagers who struggle to wake up in the morning.
• Parasomnias, or sleep walking and night terrors. They’re generally associated with the rapid eye movement, or REM, portion of sleep.
• Sleep-related movement syndromes such as restless legs syndrome.
• Pediatric sleep disorders.
Circadian sleep disorders are not considered disorders unless they affect everyday life, Esparis said.
The good news? Circadian sleep disorders are easily treated with a simple tool: light.
When it is dark, the brain produces a hormone that prompts sleep: melatonin. When lights are kept on — including the glow from a phone, tablet, computer screen or video game — the brightness inhibits the production of melatonin, making sleep more difficult. Sleep experts often recommend staying away from computers at least an hour before going to sleep.