Study provides insight into link between sleep apnea and lipid metabolism

Obstructive sleep apnea is a clinical disorder characterized by repeated partial or complete blockage of the airway during sleep. The patient can awaken abruptly, gasping and choking, and rarely gets a good night's sleep. People with sleep apnea are commonly prescribed continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, which is applied using a special ventilator that keeps their airways open.

A patient-based study led by Luciano Drager at the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and reported in the Journal of Lipid Research, provides insight into the correlation between obstructive sleep apnea and lipid metabolism, and how CPAP treatment may be beneficial for more than just the lungs.

In this study, men with sleep apnea were found to have slower breakdown of triglyceride-rich lipoproteins and reduced clearance of their metabolites from the plasma compared with men without the disease who were the same age and weight. After three months of CPAP treatment, the same patients showed significantly improved plasma lipid clearance.

The difference in lipid clearance may predispose patients with untreated sleep apnea to atherosclerosis, a thickening of the arteries which can lead to heart disease. Indeed, patients in the study tended to have thicker deposits in their carotid arteries. Sleep apnea can lead to many cardiovascular complications, including stroke, and this study provides a possible mechanism.

Sleep apnea may be on the rise. A 2014 report by the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project states that at least 25 million adults in the U.S. suffer from it.

A caveat to this study is that the number of patients was small, just 15 individuals, and all were men with severe apnea. However, if the results can be replicated in a larger and more diverse set of patients, snorers will have one more reason to slip on the CPAP mask.

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