If you have sleep apnea, you’re more likely to die from cancer, not to mention other causes of death.

In addition to a higher risk of death from cancer, sleep apnea is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and just an earlier mortality in general.

The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health announced results in 2012 of a study that ties sleep apnea to death caused by cancer.

• Sleep apnea is associated with a five times higher incidence of cancer mortality.

• Previous studies on animals have yielded similar findings.

• The precise mechanism behind the link is not known, and a causal relationship has not been established.

Can sleep apnea cause cancer?

Increased risk of death from cancer is one thing, but what about OSA actually leading to cancer?

“The process by which OSA leads to cancer is similar to why it causes clogged arteries,” says Dr. Praveen Bhatia, MBBS, a consultant physician in respiratory and general medicine in Stockport, UK.

“Intermittent hypoxia (IH) causes low oxygen levels followed by reoxygenation repeatedly overnight.

“This leads to systemic inflammation and the formation of reactive oxygen species.

“IH also increases the activity of a growth factor called hypoxia-inducible factor-1 and reduces antioxidants in the body which normally prevent damage to cells and DNA.4

“These factors lead to DNA damage, which is a major factor in developing cancer.

“This damage to DNA causes genetic mutations, some of which are proto-oncogenes (genes which cause normal cells to become cancerous when mutated), leading to the rapid growth of mutated cancer cells.”

Though it’s still a far reach to outright declare OSA as a major risk factor for developing cancer, one thing is for sure:

Untreated sleep apnea absolutely can cause coronary artery disease, chronic heart failure, atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure, not to mention the daytime issues of fatigue and not feeling refreshed, irritability, difficulties with concentration and a heightened risk of motor vehicle accidents due to drowsiness.

  1. Cao, Yan, Ning et al. “Cancer and obstructive sleep apnea: An updated meta-analysis.” Medicine; March 2022;101:e28930.
Dr. Bhatia has worked as a respiratory consultant in the Northwest of England since 2006. He is well-published in respiratory medicine journals and books and has senior roles in several medical journals. He has previously worked in the field of sleep medicine and has a special interest in obstructive sleep apnea.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  
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Source: atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/rccm.201201-0130OC