Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?


Written by Katherine Zheng

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

Table of Contents

Having sleep apnea can increase the risk of serious health complications and shorten a person’s lifespan, particularly if left untreated. Conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are linked to sleep apnea, can lead to premature death. In rare instances, sudden cardiac death can occur during sleep.

Can You Die in Your Sleep From Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can increase the risk of arrhythmias, which refer to abnormal conduction of electricity within the heart. Though this is a rare occurrence, some people with untreated or severe OSA are at risk for arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death (SCD). Having a chronic heart condition, severe OSA, and being 60 years of age or older can all increase the risk of SCD from obstructive sleep apnea.

Risk of Death from Central Sleep Apnea

Limited research has investigated the role of central sleep apnea (CSA) and the risk of dying. Central sleep apnea is not as common as OSA, affecting less than 1% of the population. CSA occurs because of disruptions in signals between the brain and muscles required for breathing  and is often associated with an underlying medical condition.

People with heart failure who have CSA have a higher death rate than people with heart failure who do not have a sleep-related breathing disorder. Cerebrovascular disease and muscle paralysis, usually from stroke, along with CSA have also been identified as contributing to a higher mortality rate. 

People with CSA should talk with their doctor about treatment, which is usually directed at treating the underlying cause of their sleep apnea. This may not only help decrease the symptoms of sleep apnea but also help with long-term health outcomes.

Risks of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to a variety of health complications ranging from changes in mood, thinking, and memory to chronic health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, liver disease, and heart health problems. 

  • Changes in mood, memory, and thinking: Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can cause changes in the way a person thinks and feels as well as their ability to remember information and react.  
  • Type II diabetes: Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and complications from diabetes are all more common in people with obstructive sleep apnea. 
  • Cardiovascular disease: A range of heart health problems can arise if obstructive sleep apnea goes undiagnosed and untreated, high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke. 
  • Liver disease: Individuals with untreated obstructive sleep apnea are three times as likely to develop a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: 20% of people with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea have pulmonary hypertension, which develops a person’s blood pressure inside of the lungs is above normal levels.

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Sleep Apnea

Sleep is fundamental to your overall health and daytime functioning. If you are not getting the recommended amount of sleep each night, it is important to talk with your health care provider. It’s also important to talk with a doctor if you, your roommate, or your bed partner notice any of the following symptoms: 

  • Daytimes sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Snoring or choking or gasping for air during sleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Frequently using the bathroom at night

If you find you’re struggling with sleep, it may also be useful to keep a sleep diary to log information about your night time routine, medications, and hours of sleep to help facilitate a discussion with your doctor. Also, examine your sleep habits and see if any changes to your routine help improve your sleep. You can also consider getting a home sleep test to determine if you have sleep apnea, and how severe it might be.

About The Author

Katherine Zheng

Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Katherine is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She has doctorate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing and is published in the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research and the journal JMIR Mental Health. She has also worked as a policy fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. With a background in academia, Katherine has always been interested in making healthcare research more accessible to the public. When not writing, Katherine is an actor and loves doing theater at night.

  • POSITION: Side Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Neutral Sleeper
  • CHRONOTYPE: Dolphin

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