Can Your Sleep Apnea Really Kill You? How Dangerous is Sleep Apnea?

killed by sleep apnea death

Is there anything worse than having to stop breathing every night and waking up to gasp for some air? This is, unfortunately, the life of almost a billion sleep apnea patients all over the world.

But the bad effects of sleep apnea don’t stop there — it causes loud snoring, a dry mouth in the morning, headaches, sleepiness during the day, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Such symptoms aren’t really life threatening, but it can be a hindrance of your normal everyday life.

Sadly, mild symptoms of sleep apnea can lead to severe complications, all of which can be truly life-threatening. So, what serious complications can result from sleep apnea? And can sleep apnea really kill you? Find out below.

How Serious Can Sleep Apnea Get? 

Sleep apnea, when not treated, can pose a several serious threats on the patients, most commonly are:

Heart Problems and High Blood Pressure

People with sleep apnea are more prone to heart problems and high blood pressure. Any interruption in breathing can lead to sudden drop in your oxygen levels. Such drops can make the blood pressure rise and push your cardiovascular system to its limits.

Furthermore, according to a Yale University study, individuals who have experienced sleep apnea for up to 5 years have a 30% increased chance of having a heart attack or dying.

Sleep apnea increases your risk of heart attack, abnormal heartbeats, and stroke (2-3 times higher risk). Such events tend to occur more in the morning, which is the common time in which REM sleep takes place and when sleep apnea occurs more.

If you already suffer from heart problems, sleep apnea will only make it worse by depriving your body of the oxygen in the blood.


Metabolic Syndrome

There’s also a link between sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome. Individuals with MS can experience metabolic and cardiovascular complications, like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, increase in waist circumference, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Though there isn’t much evidence  to support this, researchers suggest that OSA can be triggered by MS. 

Medication and Surgery Complications

Certain surgeries, anesthesia, and some medications can negatively affect people with sleep apnea, since they’re more prone to breathing problems. If you’re undergoing a surgery, you should notify your doctor about your sleep apnea in advance.

Some people rely on drugs to get better sleep or to achieve wakefulness throughout the day, but according to a National Institutes of Health study published in 2009, substance abuse can lead to sleep disturbances, making the situation a lot more worse.

Mental Illness

Since sleep apnea affects neurochemical functions in your brain, it could cause depression and mood disorders. Untreated sleep apnea may lead to insomnia, emotional fatigue, excessive daytime sleepiness, or even suicidal ideation.

It’s worth noting that these mood swings (caused by fatigue and deprivation) and chemical imbalances can negatively affect people with bipolar disorders.

Type 2 Diabetes

Sleep apnea can potentially stimulate the body to develop insulin resistance and affect the glucose metabolism, which makes you more prone to getting type 2 diabetes.

Liver Issues

Sleep apnea can make its patients more vulnerable to abnormal liver function tests, as well as scarring from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Can I Die From Sleep Apnea?

It might be difficult to directly die from sleep apnea, as your body forces you to wake up and gasp for air when you stop breathing, making your breathing resume normally. This mechanism blows your chances of suffocating during sleep.

But this is not how it works, this is like saying people don’t die from diabetes, they die from poor quality of life, pain, disability, shortened lifespan, and dysfunction.

The same applies to patients of sleep apnea, they have higher chances of imbalanced body and brain chemistry, cardiac and respiratory dysfunctions, and higher heart rates and blood pressure. This, in the long run, can greatly decrease lifespan and increase mortality. In fact, if you have untreated sleep apnea, you’re 3 times more prone to premature death.

According to studies, people with sleep apnea have a 2.5-fold increased chance of sudden death while sleeping between midnight and 6 a.m.

The more severe your sleep apnea, the greater the chance for death. In the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort follow-up study, published in Sleep in 2008, heart disease was  found to be responsible for 42% of fatalities in persons with severe sleep apnea. In clinical terminology, severe is characterised as having 20 or more respiratory episodes per hour on the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).

Furthermore, the risk of cardiac mortality was more than five times greater in individuals with untreated severe sleep apnea, compared to those who didn’t have sleep apnea. Fortunately, treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) can lower the likelihood of cardiac problems and other serious complications.

Celebrities That Died From Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea shouldn’t be taken lightly, as many celebrities we know passed away due to sleep apnea-linked cardiac problems: 

  • Carrie Fisher
  • James Gandolfini 
  • NFL player Reggie White
  • John Candy
  • Justin Tennison 
  • President William Howard Taft
  • Harris Glenn Milstead 
  • Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
  • Jerry Garcia
  • Final Thoughts

Bottom Line

Mild sleep apnea causes non-fatal symptoms like loud snoring and fatigue. However, untreated sleep apnea can cause serious health issues like high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, type 2 diabetes, mental issues,  and liver issues. All of those can pose a real threat to your life.

So, while sleep apnea isn’t directly fatal, the health problems resulting from this sleeping disorder can put your life at risk.



Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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