Sleep apnea and heart issues increase the risk for stroke

According to the CDC, 1 out of every 19 deaths occurs as the result of a stroke. And who is more likely to suffer from a stroke? Anyone who is overweight, has heart issues, and has sleep apnea is at greater risk for having a stroke – possibly a deadly one. But if you have more than one of the previously mentioned risk factors, are you at double the risk?

A recent study focused on a group of patients with atrial fibrillation (AF), a serious heart condition, to answer this question. The research team first screened over 5,000 patients to determine which suffered from obstructive sleep apnea. They then screened the sleep apnea patients to determine which suffered from AF. In total, 332 patients were included in the analyses. All patients in the study suffered from AF, but only a subset of the sample suffered from sleep apnea. 

Those with a history of stroke were excluded in the study to eliminate confounding health factors. The researchers followed all of the patients and monitored whether or not they suffered from a stroke after an extended time period. Stroke incidence was compared between those with and without sleep apnea. 

In the entire pool of AF participants, a whopping 22.9% suffered from a stroke. Be sure to compare this number to the 1 in 19 in the general population, which is much lower. Additionally, perhaps not surprisingly, the AF patients with sleep apnea had a higher occurrence of stroke than did those with only AF but no sleep apnea. It was also found that those with more severe sleep apnea (i.e., a higher apnea-hypopnea index) were at a greater risk for stroke.

The results of this study suggest a clear statement: sleep apnea makes things worse. For those suffering from arterial fibrillation, sleep apnea seems to increase the burden on the body, making a stroke more likely. By treating sleep apnea or taking steps to minimize/eliminate it (e.g., weight loss), this burden can be reduced. The message seems obvious – have your sleep apnea treated and stick to the treatment!

Yaranov, D. M., Smyrlis, A., Usatii, N., Butler, A., Petrini, J. R., Mendez, J., & Warshofsky, M. K. (2014). Effect of Obstructive Sleep Apnea on Frequency of Stroke in Patients with Atrial Fibrillation. The American Journal of Cardiology.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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