Can I Die From Sleep Apnea?

can you treat sleep apnea

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Darth Vader was never able to kill Princess Leia, no matter how hard he tried. Carrie Fischer, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars epic, was killed by something that sounds a lot more innocuous. Her death ranks as one of the most famous sleep apnea deaths to date.

And, according to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a condition that we need to stand up and take note of. Estimates are that around 12 million people in the United States alone suffer from the more dangerous form of this condition – obstructive sleep apnea.

All this to say, yes, it is indeed possible to die from sleep apnea. According to Dr. Virend Somers, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, having sleep apnea could double your chances of sudden death by cardiac arrest. This is because the oxygen saturation levels in the blood can drop significantly as a result of the condition.

Find out more about this potentially deadly condition below.

How Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

It is not the disease itself that kills you; it’s the lack of oxygen that it causes that is the problem. If you have twenty or more incidents throughout the night, your blood oxygen saturation levels can drop dangerously low.

If your heart stops beating as a result of this, you could die from cardiac arrest, without even waking up.

It not only increases the chances of you suffering from a heart attack but also increases your chances of developing high blood pressure. To add insult to injury, these attacks disrupt your sleep because you stop breathing for a little while.

You feel more tired and moody during the day and are more likely to overeat as a result. This increases your chances of becoming obese and developing the lifestyle disease, diabetes.

It’s a vicious cycle, the more weight you gain, the more likely you are to have attacks during the night. Your sleep is disrupted again, and so you feel more tired during the day. This leaves you less able to make good food choices and more likely to overeat. And so, it goes on.

That’s not to say that only obese people are at risk of developing the disease, but they are at a higher risk of developing it.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Diagnosing sleep apnea can be difficult. It is not something that the sufferer will be aware of because they will be asleep during the actual attacks. Warning signs include:

  •    Sleepiness during the day that is excessive
  •    Snoring that is very loud
  •    Waking up suddenly and feeling as though you are choking or gasping for air
  •    Having a headache on waking
  •    Waking up with a sore throat or parched mouth
  •    Problems with concentration
  •    Mood swings
  •    An increase in blood pressure
  •    Sweating during the night

If you think you might be at risk, keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks and then make an appointment to see the doctor. They will give you a physical examination and may refer you to a sleep specialist.

If you go to a sleep center, they will usually use a polysomnogram to monitor your brain activity, blood pressure, eye movements, and heart rate.

Alternatively, they may allow you to use a portable monitor at home to check the same things.

consultation with a doctor

What Happens If You Don’t Treat It?

Sleep apnea is a serious complaint, and you need to deal with it. If left untreated, you are risking sudden death as a result of cardiac arrest. Sleep apnea can cause brain damage and increase your chances of having a small stroke.

If left untreated, you will suffer from blood pressure that can become dangerously high, extreme daytime drowsiness, an increased chance of developing Type II Diabetes, headaches, worsened ADHD symptoms and depression.

But it is not just the health risks that you need to consider. You will find that your day to day performance at work will suffer because you are less able to focus and think clearly. Problem-solving will become harder for you, and even the simplest tasks will take longer as a result.

You might be putting yourself and your family at risk, especially when driving because your response times will be delayed and you are more likely to fall asleep at the wheel.

Overall, we underestimate the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep apnea is treatable, and so there is no reason for anyone to suffer from it.

Has Anyone Ever Died from It?

Exact statistics as to how many people have died as a direct result of sleep apnea are hard to come by because it is not the condition itself that kills you, but rather complications as a result of it.

But, considering that around 1 in 15 Americans or almost 7% of our population may suffer from the disease, these statistics are likely to be a lot more significant than you realize.

Some of the more famous people whose deaths have been attributed, at least in part, to this problem are Reggie White, Antonin Scalia, and Carrie Fischer.

Reggie White, honored in the Football Hall of Fame, died at just 43 years old back in 2004 as a result of a heart attack. His death was believed to be brought by complications in his sleep.

Antonin Scalia, President Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court and, consequently, Supreme Court Justice, died at the age of 79 in early 2017. While his cause of death was natural, those at the scene found that he had a CPAP machine, used in the treatment of sleep apnea, next to his bed when he died. The twist? It wasn’t plugged in.

And, of course, the death of Carrie Fischer in late 2016 was one of the most high-profile deaths related to the disease. She was only 60 when she died.

Carrie Fischer
Photo Credit: Digital Trends

5 Successful Sleep Apnea Treatments

Treating the problem is a lot easier than you might think. If you have a mild or moderate case, your doctor might recommend losing weight, if applicable, and lifestyle changes. The use CPAP or EPAP devices may be used in moderate to severe cases.

If these methods fail, then surgery to open up the airways may be used as a last resort.

Weight Loss and Lifestyle Changes

The first thing most people ask when diagnosed is, “Can it be cured by weight loss?” According to the American College of Physicians, losing weight is the safest and surest way to cure this condition. Therapies such as CPAP are useful but have their own set of drawbacks.

Surgery can have severe consequences and so should only be used as a last resort. If you are overweight, you will be advised to make lifestyle changes to lose the excess weight. If you are overweight, you will have extra tissue in the back of your throat, and this is what causes the obstruction.

Studies indicate that obstructive apnea is reversible with weight loss.

If you suffer from allergies, bringing these under control will often be the first line of treatment. Allergies can cause the constriction of airways, and so clearing the allergies can be useful as well. Smokers will be advised to quit smoking altogether.

CPAP Machines

CPAP is an excellent treatment, especially while you are trying to lose weight. It’s not the most elegant option, though, and research indicates that around about 50% of people who start this will not follow through with it. (Justice Scalia was one such example.)

It is currently uncomfortable, but the technology is evolving to make it more bearable. It’s potentially life-saving effect makes it worth putting up with the mask every night. Despite the initial discomfort, it is one of the top treatment options.

Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD)

Mandibular Advancement Devices (MAD) fit into the mouth and hold the tongue and jaw in a position that makes it easier to breathe. The airway is kept open manually by these devices.

These are useful but not quite as useful as CPAP devices. There is also a level of discomfort here that you have to get used to.

It is also advisable to choose another option if you have gum disease or you have false teeth.

EPAP Devices

Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP). EPAP may be a slightly more palatable option if you don’t like the idea or a mask covering your mouth. You use these devices only once, and they are placed over each of the nostrils when you retire.

The valve mechanism means that the air can go in quickly enough. When you need to exhale, though, the air pressure increases as the air must pass through smaller openings. The pressure helps to open the airway and is helpful in mild cases.


Surgery is never pleasant and comes with risks of its own. One of these being that you will be placed under general anesthesia. Surgery is aimed at opening up the passageways.

This might entail removing excess tissue, implanting a rod in the airway, repositioning your jaw or a tracheostomy (where a new airway is created.) You may also have the adenoids or tonsils removed.

This is useful if there are obstructions or if you cannot tolerate the use of a CPAP machine but, considering the possible adverse effects of surgery, it should not be the first option tried.

sleep apnea surgery

Wrapping It Up

So, there you have it. If you have unexplained daytime drowsiness, and never seem to wake up feeling refreshed, you could have a severe problem. Sleep apnea is something that most sufferers never even realize that they have but that can increase their chances of having a heart attack or stroke significantly.

It can lead to a range of health complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure as well and may be impacting your ability to function correctly on a daily basis. Getting yourself checked out as soon as possible is just good common-sense.

And, if the diagnosis is confirmed, there are a range of treatment options that you can try. Topping the list are simple lifestyle adjustments that you can make. If you need more help than that, therapies such as CPAP or EPAP can be helpful. And, if nothing else works, surgery is always an option for you.

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