If you or your partner snore, it could be much more than a minor annoyance. A study released last week by researchers at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital found that snoring is a greater risk factor for developing heart disease than obesity, high cholesterol or even smoking.
"Snoring isn't just a bothersome yet benign condition," says Dr. Robert Deeb, an otolaryngologist and chief staff surgeon at Henry Ford who was the study's lead author, "but rather a true health problem that can lead to thicker or abnormal carotid arteries," the two large blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygenated blood.
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In Deeb's study, "snorers were more likely to have an increased thickening in the lining of their carotid artery," he says. The vibrations generated by snoring appear to cause trauma in the arteries, leading to inflammation and thickening. "This is a precursor to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which can lead to serious problems, including heart attack and stroke."
Several previous studies have found that people who suffer from sleep apnea — a disorder caused by constricted airways and characterized by loud snoring and abnormal pauses in breathing — have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular problems. But the Henry Ford study focused on subjects who snored, but did not have sleep apnea. The center plans to launch further studies to determine more fully the connection between snoring and incidence of cardiovascular conditions.
What to Do Now if You Snore
In addition to apnea, snoring can be caused by obesity, obstructed nasal airways, a long soft palate or poor muscle tone in the throat and tongue. If you or a loved one snores on a regular basis, Deeb suggests asking your doctor about the possibility of participating in a sleep study.
"By discovering the cause of your snoring, your doctor can formulate a treatment plan and also evaluate any other potential cardiac risk factors," Deeb says. "A procedure such as a palatal implant or a device such as a dental mouthpiece are often very effective in eliminating snoring." (Learn more about these and other treatment options for adults who snore from the American College of Otolaryngology.)
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Unfortunately, many health insurers consider snoring a cosmetic concern. As a result, most patients are required to pay out of pocket for devices and procedures to treat the problem. Deeb hopes studies like his will begin to change that thinking. He also hopes that reports of his findings will empower people to talk about snoring with their partners and doctors. Detecting early signs of hardened arteries could lead to earlier treatments and better outcomes.
"Rather than just asking your significant other to sleep on the couch when they're snoring," Deeb says, "encourage them to make a doctor's appointment."
Along with the arterial concerns, another reason snorers may have an elevated risk of heart disease is that the condition often causes sleep deprivation, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, director of the Women's Heart Program at New York University's Langone Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
"Poor sleep and sleep deprivation can lead to high blood pressure, glucose intolerance and belly fat — all risk factors for heart disease," she says. "The Henry Ford study is a good wake-up call to talk to your doctor about snoring and sleeplessness, the possible underlying causes and how they can be corrected."
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Nearly 40 percent of American adults snore, according to National Sleep Foundation research, but few seek medical help for the condition. Snoring also tends to become worse with age because, as we get older, the muscles in our throats become more lax.
Gaining weight can lead to a loss of muscle tone in the throat, which also exacerbates the problem. Losing weight, Goldberg says, can be an important first step toward eliminating snoring and reducing your overall cardiac disease risk. Following a regimen like Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) or the Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight while also promoting heart-healthy dishes rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy, beans and nuts, Goldberg says.
"Knowing your cardiac risk factors, including snoring, and addressing them with your doctor," she says, "can help prevent heart disease or minimize any damage that may have occurred."
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