Researchers from the UCLA School of Nursing conducted a new study on sleep apnea, and found that the disorder may be harder to detect in women. In individuals with obstructive sleep apnea, the body’s autonomic responses are weaker. The autonomic responses are responsible for regulating body functions such as blood pressure, heart heat, and sweating. Studies show that this is true for both male and females suffering with the disorder, however symptoms are more pronounced in women.
Women with sleep apnea may appear to be healthy. They may have a normal resting blood pressure, for example. However, looks may be deceiving. According to the new study, women with sleep apnea tend to exhibit more subtle symptoms. This can make it harder for doctors to diagnose women with the disorder; in fact, they may even attribute noticeable symptoms to other conditions. “We now know that sleep apnea is a precursor to bigger health issues and for women in particular, the results could be deadly”, said Paul Macey, lead researcher.
Obstructive sleep apnea disorder can cause an individual’s breathing to be interrupted throughout the night. This issue can occur hundreds of times a night. Each time an episode occurs, the blood level oxygen drops. This can eventually damage healthy cells throughout the body. There are more than 20 million adults who suffer with this disorder in the United States. The condition can be linked to other health issues, and may even lead to early death. Unfortunately for women, they are much less likely to be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. To conduct the study men and women with and without sleep apnea were subjected to a series of tasks which were intended to measure the heart rates of the patients. The first task, called the Valsalva maneuver, required subjects to breathe out hard while keeping their mouth closed. The second task required subjects to perform a hand-grip challenge. And lastly, the cold pressure challenge. For this task, individuals placed their right foot into almost freezing-cold water for one minute.
In each case, patients with obstructive sleep apnea had lower and delayed heart rate changes when compared with the healthy control individuals. The difference from the controls was even greater in women with sleep apnea.
“The heart-rate results for these tests show that the impact of sleep apnea, while bad in men, is more severe in women,” Macey said. “This may mean that women are more likely to develop symptoms of heart disease, as well as other consequences of poor adaptation to daily physical tasks. Early detection and treatment may be needed to protect against damage to the brain and other organs”