HEALTHY LIVING
05/22/2014 08:37 am ET Updated May 22, 2014

Sleep Apnea's Stroke Risks Same For Both Men And Women, Study Finds

Royce DeGrie via Getty Images

By Katti Gray

Stroke is a risk that comes with having sleep apnea. While certain health disorders may affect men and women differently, sleep apnea may not be one of those disorders.

A preliminary new study showed that women and men with sleep apnea faced equal risks for ischemic stroke — a certain type of stroke caused by blood clots.

This preliminary study’s lead author was Suzie Bertisch, MD, MPH, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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Dr. Bertisch and her team of researchers reviewed data on 5,442 participants aged 40 and older who were enrolled in the Sleep Heart Health Study, which involved five health facilities in different states. Launched in 1997 by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tucson Department of Medicine and Respiratory Sciences Centers, the Sleep Heart Health Study aimed to investigate the possible links between cardiovascular disease and obstructive sleep apnea. Long pauses in a person’s breathing are the most obvious symptom of sleep apnea.

The researchers monitored those 5,442 study participants' breathing from their homes, where they were wired to diagnostic tools measuring heart rhythms, eye movements, brain activity and other gauges of the quality and characteristics of their sleep. Study participants were tracked that way for no more than 15.8 years. As an overall average, that follow-up period was roughly 11 years for all study participants.

These participants were divided into four groups, ranging from those with the lowest to the highest level of sleep apnea.

Those with the worst symptoms of sleep apnea had the highest stroke risks.

Men and women were equally at risk for ischemic strokes.

These researchers noted that men tend to grapple with sleep apnea for longer periods of their lives than women. That may be part of the reason previous studies have not adequately investigated whether the disorder has the same or different effects on the two sexes, according to these researchers.

"Our results could have a substantial impact on our thinking of the risks associated with sleep apnea in women,” Dr. Bertisch in a press announcement about this preliminary study. "From a clinical standpoint, the results could help clinicians provide more proactive treatment for reducing cardiovascular risk in their female [obstructive sleep apnea] patients.”

These researchers suggested that there needs to be more research focusing on sleep apnea in women and in whether treating sleep apnea lowers stroke risks in women and men.

The study was presented May 20 at the 2014 American Thoracic Society International Conference in San Diego.

It has not yet been accepted for publication in a medical journal.

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