Sleep apnea is a worldwide problem, affecting people of all ages, races, and sexes, but much of what we know about this condition was discovered right here in Wisconsin. Less than an hour’s drive from Fort Atkinson, the University of Wisconsin-Madison started recruiting people for the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study more than three decades ago in 1989. It would recruit a total of 1545 individuals, drawing from full-time employees at four Wisconsin State agencies. This makes it not only one of the longest, but also one of the largest observational studies of sleep apnea in the world.

Here are some of the key insights from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study and what they mean for your sleep apnea. 

man sleeping peacefully in bed

Sleep Apnea Is More Prevalent Than We Thought

Before the initial results were published from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, many doctors believed that sleep apnea was an uncommon condition. Since relatively few people had been diagnosed with sleep apnea and even fewer were being treated, it was assumed that there couldn’t be too many people with the problem.

However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison research revealed that sleep apnea is relatively common. Published in 1993, the study showed that nearly 25% of men and 10% of women aged 30 to 60 likely had sleep apnea. We began to realize that undiagnosed sleep apnea was a major health danger facing the country. The study also pointed to the link between snoring and severe sleep apnea. This study became one of the top ten most cited papers in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in the two decades after its publication.

In addition, later research showed that the prevalence of sleep apnea was increasing. For some population subgroups, the prevalence of sleep apnea increased by as much as 55% from 1993-2013. This showed the need for more aggressive attempts at screening for and diagnosing sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease

Once we realized how prevalent sleep apnea was, research into the condition increased dramatically. This revealed the connection between sleep apnea and many deadly health conditions. The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study focused significantly on cardiovascular risks.

First, the study showed that people with sleep apnea had an elevated risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). People with untreated moderate sleep apnea had twice the risk of high blood pressure than those without, while people with untreated severe sleep apnea had triple the risk of high blood pressure.

Later research confirmed a similar elevated risk of coronary heart disease or heart failure for people with untreated sleep apnea. These effects could be seen as much as ten years later.

Understanding these connections meant that we needed not only to diagnose sleep apnea, but provide treatment for the condition to avoid potentially deadly consequences. Everyone with sleep apnea needs treatment, and that means that it’s critically important to provide alternative sleep apnea treatment for people who can’t tolerate CPAP.

Women’s Risk of Sleep Apnea Increases at Menopause

One common risk factor for sleep apnea is being a man. This leads to people thinking of sleep apnea as a man’s condition, especially a condition that affects older, overweight men. Nonetheless, people of any age, sex, or weight can have sleep apnea. Women can develop sleep apnea, and for them, as for men, the risk increases with age.

In particular, the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study showed that menopausal women were 3.5 times as likely to have moderate or severe sleep apnea than premenopausal women.

Later research showed that this risk increased with every year following menopause. A 2017 study said that the number of pauses in breathing increased for women by about 4% for each year in menopause.

These studies demonstrated that it was critical for doctors to rigorously screen women for sleep apnea, especially when they reported snoring, daytime sleepiness, or waking up unrested. 

Research Goes On

Research with the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study continues. The current focus is on how sleep quality and sleep duration may be related to mental and physical health during midlife and beyond. This research could provide critical insights into some of the broader impacts sleep apnea may have on quality of life and productivity.

Treat Your Sleep Apnea in Fort Atkinson

At Bite Align in Fort Atkinson, sleep dentist Dr. Jennifer Stafford continues the proud Wisconsin tradition of delving into sleep apnea. She helps patients get tested for sleep apnea, and then find appropriate sleep apnea treatments that work for them.

Untreated sleep apnea is deadly. If you’ve been prescribed a sleep apnea treatment but don’t use it, you remain at a high risk for deadly complications that include not just cardiovascular problems, but dementia and cancer. Dr. Stafford can help you try oral appliance therapy, which works well for many people who don’t use their CPAP.

To learn whether you might benefit from this CPAP alternative, please call (920) 563-7323 or use our online form to request an appointment at Bite Align in Fort Atkinson, WI.