I’m often asked whether sleep apnea can kill somebody. This is a loaded question, because each person with sleep apnea has a different medical background that is complicated by varying factors. The short answer is: no – there have been no reports from somebody dying of an apnea. However, the risk of death from disorders associated with sleep apnea (such as cardiovascular disease) is often raised if the sleep apnea is untreated. People often overlook, though, a symptom of sleep apnea that many consider benign – sleepiness! Sleepiness itself probably can’t kill you. Although we have probably all felt that it certainly can when we are sitting in a boring meeting. If in a dangerous situation, though, in which vigilance is usually required, such as driving, sleepiness can certainly kill you.
A very important study examined the number of driving accidents that have occurred in those with untreated and treated sleep apnea. Fifty subjects who had started continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment were included in this study. The research team asked a series of questions involving driving history in these subjects and also was able to access their driving information from the state records. Records were compared from 2 years before and 2 years after CPAP treatment was initiated.
Driving records showed that the group of sleep apnea sufferers pre-treatment had significantly more accidents than the overall state averages. When comparing pre-treatment and post-treatment, though, those who were successfully treated had overall less accidents than before treatment. Another not-so-surprising but interesting result was that the subjects were all very unlikely to report their driving accidents, and self-reporting of accidents was much lower than what was reflected on the state driving records1.
So what is behind this increase in driving accidents in untreated subjects? First and foremost, people may have simply been falling asleep. It is not uncommon when sleep apnea sufferers openly admit to me that they have almost fallen asleep or have actually fallen asleep while driving. That’ll surely send your accident rate up. In addition, reaction time is easily affected by sleep deprivation. If these people did not fall asleep, it may be that their reaction time was not sufficiently quick enough to avoid an accident that someone with a proper night of sleep could have easily avoided. These are just a few things to keep in mind when you are deciding whether or not to use your sleep apnea treatment tonight.
1. Findley L, Smith C, Hooper J, Dineen M, Suratt PM. Treatment with nasal CPAP decreases automobile accidents in patients with sleep apnea. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2000 Mar;161(3 Pt 1):857-9.