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Heart Disease overview > Heart Health Q&A >

Does Sleep Apnea Stop Your Heart?

Q: My sister has sleep apnea. Her doctor says it actually stops your heart. Is this true? Also, he says apnea is hereditary and that I may have it. I don't sleep well, but I've never been diagnosed with sleep apnea.

A:Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing—not the heart—repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Nevertheless, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke.

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, in which throat muscles close and obstruct breathing, leading to a decrease in oxygen in the blood.

The most common sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring. Other signs may be increased daytime sleepiness, awakening suddenly with shortness of breath, and difficulty staying asleep.

Because your sister has sleep apnea and you have trouble sleeping, you should discuss this with your doctor.

Anyone can have the disorder, but it is more common in older adults, the obese, smokers, those with large tonsils, and people with a family history of sleep apnea.

Jennifer H. Mieres, M.D., is director of nuclear cardiology and associate professor of clinical medicine at New York University. She’s also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

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