02/15/2013 08:30 am ET

Sleep Apnea Heart Risks: Sleep Condition Linked With Abnormal Echocardiogram

Brief pauses in breathing during sleep could be a sign that the heart isn't working as well as it should be, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that 31 percent of women who have obstructive sleep apnea -- a condition where a person stops breathing intermittently during sleep -- as well as some kind of heart symptoms also have abnormal echocardiograms.

An echocardiogram is a test that is used to monitor heart health; an abnormal result does not always mean something is wrong with the heart, but it could be a sign of heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. (For a full list of conditions that could be signaled by an abnormal echocardiogram, click here.)

The study, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, included 1,265 women between ages 15 and 45. All of the women had obstructive sleep apnea; 53 percent had a mild case, 24 percent had a moderate case, and 23 percent had a severe case.

Because the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed study, they should be regarded as preliminary. But still, the findings are important considering pregnant women may face an increased risk for sleep apnea.

Recently, a study conducted by Romanian researchers showed that the heart damage from obstructive sleep apnea may be as bad as that seen in diabetes patients. Specifically, sleep apnea is linked with having stiffer arteries than a person would if they didn't have the condition; stiff arteries are a known risk factor for heart disease.

For more potential health risks linked with sleep apnea, click through the slideshow:

Health Concerns Linked With Sleep Apnea