A new research study published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, finds that sleep apnea raises the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Sleep apnea occurs when someone snores heavily or stops breathing in the middle of the night. It currently affects over 12 million Americans. Several studies suggest it’s on the rise due to the current obesity epidemic. Risk factors include being overweight, having a thicker neck circumference, having a narrowed airway and smoking.

The study tracked over 10,000 men and women with an average age of 53, who had been referred for sleep studies between 1987 and 2003. 78 percent were diagnosed with sleep apnea. Researchers followed up with participants for up to 15 years and found that 142 suffered sudden cardiac arrest, with some cases being fatal.

“Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating abruptly and unexpectedly as a result of problems with the heart’s electrical system,” explains Dr. Sung Lee, electrophysiologist and director of electrophysiology at Washington Adventist Hospital. “Sleep apnea is also associated with other heart rhythm problems including atrial fibrillation, which increases risk of stroke.  Sleep apneas should be taken seriously.  Sleep apnea is suspected in people who are overweight, snore, and have daytime sleepiness and fatigue.”

The study suggests that the type of heart rhythm problem associated with sleep apnea may be the reason for its link to sudden cardiac death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 47% of sudden cardiac deaths occur outside a hospital, suggesting that many people with heart disease do not act fast enough on early warning signs. Learn your risk for heart disease by taking a free, online heart health risk assessment at TrustedHeartCare.com.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, please speak with your doctor about a sleep test. If you need help finding a doctor, please call 1-800-642-0101, or visit AdventistHealthCare.com/findadoc.

The Sleep Disorders Centers at Washington Adventist and Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Centers offer two of the most comprehensive and advanced sleep medicine programs in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, visit WashingtonAdventistHospital.com/Sleep or ShadyGroveAdventistHospital.com/Sleep.