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Hazardous to Your Heart

Sleep Disorders May Be Hazardous to Your Heart

When Dennis needed quadruple bypass surgery three years ago, he chalked up his health problems to cigarette smoking and poor eating habits. Heart disease also runs in his family. But the 58-year-old recently learned there might have been another contributing factor: an undiagnosed sleep disorder.

Dennis was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that obstructed his air passageway and interrupted his breathing while he slept.

As you struggle to breathe, your heart works harder. If untreated, sleep apnea can lead to hypertension, stroke and heart disease, or it can exacerbate an existing heart problem.

People with sleep apnea also are more likely to have an abnormal heart rhythm, the Journal of the American Heart Association reported.

About 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is more prevalent in men than women, affecting about 4 percent of middle-aged men, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

The disorder is characterized by snoring interrupted by periods of choking sounds. Warning signs also include excessive daytime sleepiness and early morning headaches.

Snoring should not be something that is just laughed off. It could be the sign of a serious problem like sleep apnea. Napping during the day or falling asleep in class or in a business meeting is not normal either. Unless you are working the night shift, you should not be sleeping during the day. Only nocturnal creatures like bats should be sleeping when it's light outside.

Dennis did not have the classic signs of sleep apnea, but his wife Karen, a nurse, recognized that he might have a sleep disorder after attending an educational program.

Dennis participated in an overnight sleep study at the RWJ Comprehensive Sleep Center, where specially trained polysomnographers monitored his brain activity and breathing as he slept. The tests showed that he was awakened many times during the night as he strained to get air. His oxygen level dropped to 80 percent.

A few weeks later, he was fitted for a mask that he wears to bed every night. The mask creates a pressure splint when he breathes to help keep his airway open.

"I'm sleeping better at night and I have much more energy during the day," Dennis said. "I wish I had gotten help for this earlier. It might have prevented some of my other health problems."

If you think you may have a sleep disorder, see your physician. A sleep study may be ordered to evaluate and diagnose the cause of your sleep disturbances.