Several studies indicate that the fragmented sleep and intermittent hypoxia -- bouts of oxygen starvation -- typical of OSA are associated with the development of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As the research stacks up, the results are unsettling but informative.
According to Dr. Naresh Punjabi, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., 70 to 80 percent of Type 2 diabetes patients also have OSA.
Even more recently, board certified sleep specialist Dr. Domingo Rodriguez-Cue reported that intermittent hypoxia can initiate a cellular process known as "mitochondrial dysfunction," which plays a role in the onset of cancer.
"Finding successful treatment for obstructive sleep apnea isn't only critical to your energy levels and quality of sleep, but to your longterm health, too," says Edward Grandi, executive director of the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA). "Heart disease is another OSA hazard. Sleep apnea is frequently seen in people with heart failure and stroke, and it's known to cause a rise in blood pressure."
In the technical world, the presence of two chronic diseases or conditions at the same time is called a "comorbidity." But, some of the relationships between sleep apnea and its comorbidities teeter on the edge of cause and effect.
Punjabi believes sleep apnea can advance Type 2 diabetes in someone who is predisposed to the disease already. Another key factor, which affects both diseases, is obesity -- one of America's epidemics. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 33 percent of Americans over age 20 are now obese.
Obesity is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea, creating a lethal mix of severe ailments when present. Like obesity, OSA may contribute to diabetes. The off-and-on breathing from apneas and hypopneas starves a sleeper of oxygen and stresses their metabolic balance. This can stimulate excessive adrenaline, which in turn may worsen a predisposition to insulin resistance, thus advancing diabetes in addition to cancer.