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Study finds sleep apnea may increase risk of pneumonia – but that’s just one of many health-related consequences

All individuals with sleep apnea may be at an increased risk for pneumonia, according to new research.

Until now, most of the research on sleep apnea and pneumonia has focused on individuals receiving continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment. With that treatment, patients wear a mask that blows air down their nose and throat, keeping their airway open throughout the night.

But researchers in Taiwan studied individuals with milder forms of sleep apnea who don't need CPAP machines and discovered that they seem to be at an increased risk for pneumonia. The study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal this week.

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Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious condition that causes people to have short pauses in their breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea can stop breathing, typically for 10 to 30 seconds or even longer, as many as hundreds of times in a night, according to the Canadian Lung Association. The condition prevents restful sleep and can affect how a person feels and is able to perform activities each day. And, if left untreated, it can lead to a number of long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and depression.

People who are overweight or obese, have large, thick necks, smoke and/or have a family history of sleep apnea may be at risk for the condition. It's more common in men and people over age 40.

A large number of people with obstructive sleep apnea are unaware they have the condition. Signs of the condition include unexplained fatigue during the day as well as snoring and pauses in breath while sleeping.

Many health professionals recommend lifestyle changes, like losing weight and limiting alcohol intake, in people with mild to moderate sleep apnea.

In the study, researchers looked at data for thousands of patients with sleep apnea as well as a control group of patients for comparison purposes. After a follow-up period of nearly five years, they determined that 9.4 per cent of sleep apnea patients had been diagnosed with pneumonia, compared to 7.8 per cent in the control group. The risks were highest among patients who used CPAP therapy.

The authors speculate the higher risk could be because of compromised immunity and increased aspiration risk. The risks of aspiration could be especially great among patients with CPAP therapy.

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