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Obstructive sleep apnea -- a common disorder marked by disrupted breathing during sleep -- increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, heart attack, stroke, sudden cardiac death and heart failure.
"There are not enough studies in the medical literature on early cardiovascular dysfunction in patients with [obstructive sleep apnea], when active steps can be taken to prevent progression to heart failure," study author Dr. Raluca Mincu of Bucharest, Romania, said in a European Society of Cardiology news release.
Because obstructive sleep apnea leads to many cardiovascular disorders, the researchers compared early cardiovascular dysfunction in sleep apnea patients and patients with diabetes, which is a typical risk factor for cardiovascular disease, Mincu added.
The study included 20 patients with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, 20 patients with treated type 2 diabetes and 20 healthy people. They underwent tests to assess the condition of their arteries.
"Patients with moderate to severe [obstructive sleep apnea] had endothelial dysfunction and higher arterial stiffness than [the healthy people], and their results were similar to patients with diabetes," Mincu said. This suggests that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with a high risk for cardiovascular disease, Mincu added.
Endothelial dysfunction means that the inner lining of blood vessels does not function normally.
The study was scheduled for presentation this week at the annual meeting of the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging in Athens, Greece.
"Patients should realize that behind snoring there can be a serious cardiac pathology and they should get referred to a sleep specialist," Mincu said. "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."
"Our study is a signal for cardiologists, pneumologists and general practitioners to work together to actively diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, administer the appropriate treatment (continuous positive airway pressure -- CPAP) and assess arterial function," Mincu concluded. "This will help avoid progression of early cardiovascular dysfunction through to heart failure, the final stage of heart disease."
Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
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SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, Dec. 5, 2012