Does Sleep Apnea up the Cancer Mortality Risk?

by Garreth Myers

If you are one of the 28 million Americans who suffers from sleep apnea, you can now add one more worry to your list of health concerns. In addition to sleep apnea being linked with higher instances of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension, recent studies show that the condition may also be related to a higher risk of cancer and mortality from cancer. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes snoring, daytime sleeplessness, and depletion of oxygen in the body due to long pauses in breathing at night. When people suffer from sleep apnea, the muscles in their throats collapse during sleep. This chokes off their airways and leads to loud snoring and gasping for breath. During a single night, several such episodes may take place and lead to a severe depletion of oxygen in the body. At a recent American Thoracic Society Conference in San Francisco, two new studies indicated that sleep apnea might be linked to cancer in humans.

Until now, studies have only investigated the effects of sleep apnea and the depletion of oxygen levels in the bodies of mice. Scientists placed mice with tumors in environments with low-oxygen levels meant to replicate the effects of sleep apnea. The cancer in the mice that were deprived of oxygen progressed more rapidly and was more likely to result in death. This may be attributed to the increase in the number of blood vessels in the bodies of the mice to compensate for the lack of oxygen received. Scientists speculate that this could cause cancerous tumors to grow and spread faster. However, the exact link between sleep apnea and cancer is still not known.

In order to explore whether a similar relationship existed between people with sleep apnea and cancer, a team at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health conducted a long-term study measuring the sleeping habits and overall health of thousands of participants. Results showed that the more severe the sleep apnea, the higher the chances of dying from cancer. People with severe sleep apnea died from cancer at the rate of 4.8 times more than those who did not suffer from the condition.

In another landmark study conducted by the Spanish Sleep Network, 5,200 people with sleep apnea were studied over a period of seven years. None of these subjects were diagnosed with cancer when the study began. As the research progressed, it was discovered that the higher the levels of oxygen depletion during sleep, the greater the chances that the person would receive a diagnosis of cancer during the period of the study. For example, people whose oxygen levels fell below 90 percent had more than a 60 percent chance of developing cancer. Researchers therefore concluded that the higher the amount of time spent without oxygen increases a person's risk of cancer significantly.

Both studies ruled out the impact of other risk factors for cancer such as age, alcohol abuse, smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. Even after all these variables were adjusted, the likelihood of developing cancer still increased with sleep apnea. At this point of time however, neither of these two studies looked into the impact of the treatment of sleep apnea and the reduction of cancer. Though both speculated that people who were being treated for sleep apnea might reduce their risks, there is no conclusive evidence to prove the same.

Inspite of these findings, there are still several doctors and experts who label the studies as 'provocative' but insist that more research needs to be conducted to confirm the association between sleep apnea and cancer.

They do agree that such research provides important clues about the relationship between sleep patterns and your overall health. While the link between cancer and sleep apnea may not yet be as strongly documented as the relationship between cardiovascular disease and the condition, it does give you good reason to get your apnea diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.



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