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Sleep apnea heart risks similar to those associated with diabetes

A recent study revealed an association between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and early heart damage linked to type 2 diabetes. OSA is a common sleep disorder that increases one's risk of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, heart attack, stroke, sudden cardiac death and heart failure.

"Patients should realize that behind snoring there can be a serious cardiac pathology, and they should get referred to a sleep specialist," said study researcher, Dr. Raluca Mincu, from Bucharest, Romania, in a press release from the European Society of Cardiology. "If they are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, they are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and need to adopt a heart healthy lifestyle to reduce that risk."

The study evaluated function of the arteries and their lining cells (endothelia) in 60 patients with similar age and gender. One-third had moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea (no diabetes), another third had treated type 2 diabetes (no apnea) and the remainder, the control group, had neither condition.

Using various metrics, the study revealed individuals with OSA and those with diabetes had stiff arteries and endothelial dysfunction to an extent not seen in the group of health individuals.

Ultrasound measurements of the arterial wall revealed similar findings, MedPage Today reported. While the control group's averaged 0.64 mm in size, the diabetic (0.89 mm) and OSA groups' (0.94 mm) measurements were higher, the latter two likewise showing pathological remodeling.

Endothelial function was assessed by measuring blood flow through the vessels. Individuals with sleep apnea had severely limited flow (7.7 percent), and diabetics had a similar result (8.4 percent). In the control group, flow was 19 percent.

Mincu published the study's findings as an abstract and presented them at EUROECHO and other Imaging Modalities 2012, the annual meeting of the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging, The Huffington Post noted. Because the complete results haven't been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, they should be considered preliminary.

However, prior research also has connected sleep apnea and negative arterial effects. A Baylor College of Medicine study in mice revealed sleep apnea can affect the ability of the brain's blood vessels to function, thereby possibly increasing stroke risk.

"Our study is a signal for cardiologists, pneumologists and general practitioners to work together to actively diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, administer the appropriate treatment and assess arterial function," Mincu said in the press release. "This will help avoid progression of early cardiovascular dysfunction through to heart failure, the final stage of heart disease."

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