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CPAP Machines Don’t Prevent Heart Disease, Strokes, Death

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Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially fatal condition that can cause people to stop breathing for a few seconds while sleeping, sometimes multiple times a night. The condition, which occurs when throat muscles relax and block the airway, affects over 25 million Americans. It has been linked to heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, the Washington Post reports.

The standard treatment for sleep apnea is through the use of the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine. The device keeps the airway open by pushing air in through a person’s nostrils while sleeping. The main problem is that many people with sleep apnea find the air mask and hose hooked to the machine uncomfortable during sleep, and give up on the CPAP.

The results of a new, large-scale sleep study may lend weight to that decision.

Researchers found that using a CPAP does not prevent heart attacks, strokes, or deaths in patients with existing cardiovascular disease and moderate to severe sleep apnea any more than not using it.

Members of the two Australian research institutes behind the studies were surprised at their findings, which they presented at a cardiology conference in Rome. Previous studies and examinations had shown that CPAP has a positive impact on the conditions mentioned.

Craig S. Anderson, a lead author on the study and professor of stroke neurology at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, says that in earlier research, “the epidemiological data is very strong and the biomarker data is very strong.” The same was true for observational research on CPAP patients.

This study is the largest to have looked at obstructive sleep apnea, Anderson explains. It took five years of studying 2,687 subjects ages 45 to 75 across seven countries.

The participants were divided into two groups of roughly the same size, and the researchers saw no significant impact on heart attacks, strokes, death and other diseases among those who used the CPAP machine and those who did not.

But CPAP still has its benefits, the new study says. The pump does reduce daytime sleepiness that patients experience and improves mood, work productivity and overall quality of life. The machine also reduced anxiety and depression in sleep apnea patients.

Anderson says it’s unclear why there was a lack of impact. It could be that the CPAP group only used the masks an average of 3.3 hours a night — which is equivalent to real-world use — which was not enough time to show an effect. Another theory is that cardiovascular disease might be too complicated to treat with a machine once it has progressed.

Sleep apnea is also linked to obesity and remains undiagnosed in many people. Common symptoms are loud snoring, wheezing or gasping while sleeping.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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