Is there a link between women’s sleep apnea and cancer risk?

Cancer

Are women with sleep apnea more likely to get cancer? Researchers recently investigated the relationship between sleep apnea and cancer.

An estimated 50-70 million US adults suffer from sleep apnea. There are three primary types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and complex. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form. It occurs when a sleeper’s throat muscles relax, causing them to momentarily stop breathing. The blood oxygen level drops, and the brain sends a signal that more oxygen is needed. The sleeper will gasp for air, interrupting their sleep. The interruption is short enough that they do not fully awake but prevents them from reaching the deepest level of sleep needed for rest to be complete.

Researchers have noted a link between sleep apnea and other health problems, such as chronic diseases, heart attack, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. However, study results do not consistently find a link between sleep apnea and cancer risk. There have also been very few studies performed to determine whether sleep apnea affects men or women more frequently.

To bridge this gap, researchers from the University of Gothenberg and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden performed an analysis of sleep apnea data from the European Sleep Apnea Database, ESADA. ESADA is a collection of clinical data gathered from European sleep laboratories. The types of sleep disorder data collected are patient changes, patient genetics, bodily damage caused by sleep apnea, and cardiovascular disease. The study also collected demographic information about patients.

The researchers analyzed data from approximately 20,000 patients registered in ESADA that had obstructive sleep apnea. Of these patients, approximately two percent had a diagnosis of cancer. After statistically analyzing the data, a link was found between sleep apnea and cancer risk in women. The data also reaffirmed that patients who were older, overweight or obese, smoked, or drank alcohol were also at a higher risk of developing cancer. The risk between sleep apnea and cancer was two to three times higher for women than it was for men.

Study author and head of medicine at the Department of Sleep Medicine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Ludger Grote, said in a press release, “The condition of sleep apnea is well known to the general public and associated with snoring, daytime fatigue, and elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, especially in men. Our research paves the way for a new view — that sleep apnea may possibly be connected with increased cancer risk, especially in women.”

Researchers would like to conduct future studies on the causes of obstructive sleep apnea and cancer risk. They would also like to explore whether different types of cancer that are specific to women, such as breast or endometrial cancer, are more prevalent in women with sleep apnea.

Ludger Grote added in the press release, “…it is less likely that cancer leads to sleep apnea.” For those women that suffer with obstructive sleep apnea, talking to their doctor about different treatment options may also decrease their risk for cancer. Lifestyle changes combined with a treatment such as a continuous positive airway pressure mask could work to break the link between sleep apnea and cancer risk in women.

Written by Rebecca K. Blankenship, B.Sc.

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