Two new studies show that people who suffer from sleep apnea may be at higher risk of developing cancer than people without sleep apnea. In one of the studies, Spanish researchers followed thousands of patients at sleep clinics and found that those with the most severe sleep apnea had a 65 percent higher chance of developing cancer of any kind. In the second study, researchers in Wisconsin studied about 1,250 government workers and found that those with the most breathing abnormalities at night had five times the rate of dying from any cancer than those without the sleep disorder.
Dr. Matthew D. Mingrone, lead physician of EOS Sleep, a sleep center in San Francisco, says that while this study shows an association relationship, not a cause-and-effect one, it's an important reminder that sleep plays a huge role in our overall health and well being.
"Reports like this help to open our eyes to sleep being a pillar of health along with proper nutrition and exercise," he says. "We need to put a high priority on sleep in our lives and realize that sacrificing sleep is not good for our health."
An estimated 28 million Americans have sleep apnea, a condition in which pauses in breathing throughout the night cause oxygen deprivation, though many cases go undiagnosed. For sleep doctors, the condition is a top concern, because it deprives the body of oxygen at night and can often coincide with conditions such as adult onset diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and now, cancer.
"Oxygen is critical for proper and health cellular function," Dr. Mingrone says. "When starved for oxygen, the inner workings of the cell begin to operate under stress, which can cause the oxygen available to the cell to become damaged."
Damaged oxygen cells, he explains, can then interfere with normal cell growth and repair at the DNA level. When that happens, the signals that regulate cell growth might not work properly, which can cause cells to grow out of control, and that is when cancerous cells often develop.
More research is needed to confirm the association, but in the meantime, if you think you or someone you know has sleep apnea, it's a good idea to get it checked out by a doctor. It's also a good reminder that maintaining your weight is important—excess weight is one of the most common contributing factors to snoring and sleep apnea, according to Dr. Mingrone, and the stress that it causes on the body can produce hormones which are responsible for fat distribution. As anyone who's ever tried to lose weight knows, it can be an uphill battle, and sleep apnea only makes it more difficult.
"The good news is that people who have sleep issues such as sleep apnea are living in a time where it has never been easier to get diagnosed and treated," Dr. Mingrone says. "We are now able to offer home sleep testing so that one's sleep can be analyzed in the comfort and known environments of their own home. Treatments for sleep apnea can be simple, safe, effective, and convenient."
What do you think of this research? Do you or anyone you know have sleep apnea?