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Jun 19, 2011 2:01 AM by From the Editors of Live Right Live Well

Can snoring really kill me?

Yes -- if it s related to sleep apnea, which typically causes loud snoring punctuated by periods of choking silence. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, found that people with severe sleep apnea had more than triple the risk of dying prematurely compared to those without apnea.

Ordinary snoring does not interrupt breathing. But if you have apnea (which occurs most often in overweight, middle-aged men), you repeatedly suck your airway closed, which temporarily stops breathing. Interrupted breathing means less oxygen in the bloodstream, says Max Hershkowitz, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Research Center at the Michael DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Houston. In people with severe apnea, blood oxygen can plummet by 40 percent. To compensate, the heart pumps harder, raising blood pressure, and over time, increasing risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cognitive impairment and congestive heart failure.

Apnea also interferes with restful sleep. While you don t wake up each time you stop breathing, you do get roused enough that you sleep terribly. Because of this, people with sleep apnea typically feel drowsy during the day, have trouble concentrating and are prone to dozing off when they shouldn t. If this sounds like you and someone shares your bed, ask them to listen while you sleep. If your snoring is interrupted by short periods of choking silence, you may have apnea. If you sleep alone, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep disorders clinic.

If you are diagnosed with apnea, the first step is weight loss, says Robert Ballard, M.D., medical director of the Advanced Center for Sleep Medicine at Presbyterian/St. Luke s Medical Center, in Denver. If that doesn t help, your doctor will likely suggest a C-PAP machine, which gently pushes extra oxygen into your lungs through a mask that fits over your nose. In the Wisconsin study, these devices were found to provide substantial protection against premature death. People with [sleep apnea] should be treated, concludes study leader Terry Young, Ph.D. If not, they re risking their lives.

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