Sleep apnea treatment may lengthen lives, study finds

A CPAP machine for sleep apnea sitting on a bedside table.

May 6, 2019—People who use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or a similar device while they sleep to treat their obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may have a lower risk of dying early, new research suggests.

The study involved nearly 400 adults with obesity and severe OSA. OSA causes a person's breathing to stop and start again several times during sleep. It often occurs because excess tissue in the back of the throat blocks a person's airways. OSA is commonly treated with positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy, in which a device blows air into a mask worn over the face to keep the airways open during sleep. CPAP is one type of PAP therapy. Some of the study participants used PAP at night while they slept; most did not.

After several years, the participants who used PAP therapy were 62% less likely to die from any cause than those who did not use a PAP device at night. The finding held up even after researchers considered other factors that might have affected the results, like whether the participants had diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure or heart disease.

Results at odds with those of clinical trials

Previous clinical trials have not shown that PAP therapy lowers the risk of death in people with OSA. Why might that be? One possible explanation is that those earlier studies simply didn't follow people long enough. The current study tracked participants for 11 years. That's one of the study's major strengths.

It also has weaknesses, including the fact that the researchers were not able to determine for how long or how often the participants used their PAP. They just knew whether they used it or not.

The study appeared in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Stick to treatment

The takeaway from the study is clear: If you've been prescribed CPAP to treat your sleep apnea, using it as directed could extend your life. If you have any trouble using your CPAP every night, tell your doctor. Some people find that their CPAP mask is uncomfortable or doesn't fit right. Your doctor may be able to fix these problems.

What should you know about sleep apnea?

Learn more about sleep apnea and its symptoms.

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