We already know that sleep apnea can wreak havoc on our sleeping patterns, our alertness during the day, and our mental health. But we are learning more and more each day about how dangerous this sometimes debilitating condition can be. Sleep apnea has been linked to illnesses as serious as diabetes and cancer, and a new study has revealed how closely tied sleep apnea is to cancer.
The study was scheduled for presentation at the American Thoracic Society International Conference and measured the relationship between the severity of sleep apnea and the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Dr. Jim Block of Fremont, California, treats patients for sleep apnea in his practice. He says the dangers posed by sleep apnea are often overlooked because many people only focus on certain elements.
“Some people think of sleep apnea as just snoring,” says Block. “But it goes much farther beyond that.”
How much farther? According to the study, sleep apnea doesn’t just slightly increase your risk of developing cancer – that risk can be up to 30 percent higher based on the severity of your sleep apnea.
To conduct the study, researchers examined data from over 33,000 people. They learned that patients who had no cancer at the beginning of the study developed the illness at a rate of about 7 percent over seven years. Those with severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) had a 15 percent higher risk of developing cancer than those who did not have sleep apnea at all.
“This shows us that the worse the sleep apnea, the higher the cancer risk,” Block says.
As for the types of cancer that were seen most frequently in the patients with obstructive sleep apnea who developed cancer, according to the study they were lung cancer and colorectal cancer. Though researchers did not hypothesize as to why these two cancers in particular were so much more common, Block has theories.
“We see obstructive sleep apnea in a lot of obese patients and colorectal cancer is also common in obese patients,” he says. “As for lung cancer, patients may develop this type of cancer if they smoke, which could also contribute to or be caused by sleep apnea.”
Block says patients worrying about their risk of developing comorbid conditions along with their sleep apnea should be evaluated by a sleep apnea specialist and fitted for a custom sleep orthotic.
“There is treatment for sleep apnea,” he says. “While we don’t know how many patients in the study were being treated for sleep apnea when they were diagnosed with cancer, we do know sleep apnea treatment can improve quality of life.”