Hidden Health Risks: Sleep Apnea and Cancer

Two recent studies have found an association, but not a causal relationship, between sleep apnea and cancer.  This study adds yet another health risk linked to sleep apnea, along with heart disease, diabetes, depression and gastro-esophageal reflux disease.

According to an article printed in the New York Times:

“In one of the new studies, researchers in Spain followed thousands of patients at sleep clinics and found that those with the most severe forms of sleep apnea had a 65 percent greater risk of developing cancer of any kind. The second study, of about 1,500 government workers in Wisconsin, showed that those with the most breathing abnormalities at night had five times the rate of dying from cancer as people without the sleep disorder. Both research teams only looked at cancer diagnoses and outcomes in general, without focusing on any specific type of cancer.”


Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder which affects an estimated 12-28 million Americans but often goes undiagnosed and untreated, increasing the risk of related health issues.  Those suffering from sleep apnea stop breathing during sleep for intervals of ten seconds or more, resulting in disturbances of the sleep cycle as well as oxygen deprivation to the brain.

It is this decrease in oxygen level that is thought to be a main factor in the link between sleep apnea and cancer.  The Spanish study, noted above, measured the relationship between oxygen deprivation and cancer, and found that the greater the oxygen deprivation during the night, the greater the instances of cancer during the period of the study.  Science News reports that those with the greatest levels of oxygen deprivation were “nearly nine times as likely to have died of cancer during the ensuing study years than were those with normal-oxygen blood.”

The fact that this widespread disorder goes undiagnosed and untreated so often is alarming.  Serious health risks that could be prevented and addressed if sleep apnea were diagnosed and treated are the result.  These latest studies linking sleep apnea and increased cancer risk adds to the urgency of education and awareness about sleep apnea.  As quoted in the New York Times, Dr. F. Javier Nieto, one of the authors of the U.S.-based study says, “I would say that this is one more instance that shows that sleep apnea can have profound impacts for people’s health,” he added. “Not breathing while you’re sleeping is a serious problem.”


New York Times Article

Science News Article