One of the most common questions people have after they get a sleep apnea diagnosis is: can you die from sleep apnea? 

The answer might seem a little contradictory. No, sleep apnea won’t kill you. However, untreated sleep apnea can lead to numerous complications that can kill you. If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea or suspect you might have the condition, contact a Detroit sleep dentist at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute. We can help you get tested for sleep apnea with a comfortable, convenient home sleep test. Then our sleep dentists can recommend a CPAP alternative if you’re a good candidate. 

adult woman plugging her ears while partner snores

You Are More Likely to Die with Sleep Apnea

The Detroit sleep dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute understand how important it is to treat sleep apnea because it is associated with an elevated risk of death. Numerous studies confirm that if you have sleep apnea, you are significantly more likely to die. How much more likely depends on the individual study. 

Learning the Risks of Sleep Apnea

On August 1, 2008, the journal Sleep published two studies showing that untreated sleep apnea increased the overall risk of death. The first study was an 18-year follow-up of more than 1500 people in Wisconsin. This study showed that people with severe sleep apnea were 3.8 times more likely to die of any cause (all-cause mortality) and 5.2 times more likely to die from cardiovascular causes than people without sleep apnea. 

In the second study, researchers followed 400 people from the Australian town of Busselton. They tested the people for sleep apnea and followed them for an average of 13.4 years. This study found that people with moderate to severe sleep apnea were 6.2 times more likely to die of any cause than those with mild or no sleep apnea. In this study, fully a third of the people with moderate to severe sleep apnea died. The small size of the study likely impacted this risk figure, artificially inflating it. A later study, based on a 20-year follow-up and removing people with a previous stroke, showed only a 4.2 times increase in all-cause mortality.  

Meta-Analysis Confirms the Risk

Since these two studies, several others confirm the basic findings, although with different specific risk numbers. In a 2016 meta-analysis (a study that pools data from other studies), researchers concluded that people with severe sleep apnea were at a 2.1 times higher risk for all-cause mortality. The following year, another meta-analysis concluded the all-cause mortality risk was 1.5 times higher for people with severe sleep apnea.  A 2021 meta-analysis found that overall sleep apnea was associated with a 1.74 times higher risk for all-cause mortality, which jumped to 2.9 for severe sleep apnea. 

Although the individual numbers change, the studies all come to the same conclusion: sleep apnea makes it more likely that you will die. 

However, the cause of death is unlikely to be sleep apnea. 

Dangers of Untreated Sleep Apnea

So if sleep apnea isn’t the cause of death, what is? The Detroit sleep dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute see people who experience numerous complications from sleep apnea, many of which can be fatal, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Suicide
  • Car accidents

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. It’s also the leading cause associated with sleep apnea deaths. Likewise, heart attack and stroke are also common causes of death. What is striking is that it can be much more prevalent in people with sleep apnea, perhaps five times more likely in people with sleep apnea. Stroke and heart attack (myocardial infarction) both occur when arterial plaque breaks loose and then blocks narrower arteries supplying oxygen to the vital structures of the brain or heart. Elevated blood pressure makes this plaque more likely to break off, and sleep apnea causes high blood pressure that doesn’t respond to normal methods of treatment (like medication). 

The link between sleep apnea and cancer is less well-defined. Some, but not all, studies confirm that there’s an elevated risk for cancer among people with sleep apnea. The link with cancer death is equally uncertain. For increased cancer risk, the difficulty could be systemic inflammation. In addition, sleep apnea can sap the body’s resources, making it harder for the body to defeat cancer. 

People with sleep apnea have higher risks of suicidal ideation, suicide planning, and suicide attempts than those without the condition. 

People with sleep apnea are 2.5 times more likely to be the driver in a car accident than people without the condition. Another study showed they were more likely to be involved in a serious accident

Sleep Apnea Treatment in Detroit

The good news is that sleep apnea treatment can help reduce or eliminate these risks. For cardiovascular problems, for example, sleep apnea treatment can reduce risk to normal levels. The same is true for car accidents and suicide

There is a challenge, though. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Although this treatment is highly effective for people who use it, only about half of those prescribed the treatment will use it long-term. 

If your doctor prescribed CPAP, but you don’t want to try it or can’t adapt to it, the Detroit sleep dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute can help you get an alternative. Oral appliance therapy can be as effective as CPAP for many people, but it’s more comfortable and convenient, which improves adherence. 

To learn more about CPAP alternatives, please call (586) 573-0438 or use our online form to request an appointment at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute, serving the Detroit area from Warren, MI.