So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Sleep Apnea and how it can lead to death? With the recent news of Zach Hemmila passing in his sleep, (senior football player at Arizona) many people question sleep apnea as a cause. Can you go in depth on this issue, and does it worsen or get better with age?


I know someone who is described as having “severe” sleep apnea. When at its worst (via sleep test) she would breathe 18 – 20 seconds out of every minute – which was loud snoring, fractured, and painful (upon waking up). The remaining ~40 seconds she would cycle through silence, choking type movements, and what was best described as violent heaving of her chest. At some point her body wakes up enough to reopen her airway with a big inhale, then exhale, then repeat. While that doesn’t happen ALL night, it happens for a significant portion. Due to the relaxation of her throat, etc, when she does breathe, the snoring is loud enough that it can be heard throughout her house, doors closed.

So in reading the above, think of the stress that causes on the body, the muscles, the heart, lungs, throat, etc. Beyond that are the lingering effects – lack of oxygen, lack of sleep (I can’t remember how much deep sleep the report said she got, but it was way, way below a healthy amount). This means she is always tired, which makes driving a challenge. She can fall asleep almost anytime within a few minutes. So she could sleep for 14 hours, get up for an hour or two, then easily go back to sleep. Hell, she can’t study or be in a meeting without having trouble staying awake.

Anyways, there are short term (asleep while driving / doing something) and long term implications (stress on body / heart) to sleep apnea that can lead to various avenues of death. Its not a fun thing to have.

Your second question: does it get better with age? From my knowledge no, the specialists she has seen have basically stated that this is not going anywhere. She will have this until she dies (hopefully not because of sleep apnea).

In short, sleep Apnea means your airways close (throat) while you sleep, stopping you from breathing. This places stress on your body and heart. It also stops you from getting the various stages of deeper sleep, which are important, and leave you tired throughout the day, thus more prone to accidents (clumsiness / falling asleep while driving / trying to pay attention).

She does have a CPAP and it does help somewhat, the above is more of a description of her experience when NOT using it. Also CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) blows a constant stream of air into the mouth and / or nose set to a degree high enough to keep your airway open (different for everyone). This in effect stops things from closing up so you can breathe normally all night. For anyone considering a CPAP or just getting one, its going to be weird and uncomfortable at first. You HAVE to be diligent, use it every night no matter what, and don’t give up on it.

There is another form of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea. This is when the body doesn’t recognize the blood oxygen levels correctly and ‘forgets’ to breathe while asleep.

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Last Update: August 20, 2016

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