By Michael Le Grande, Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Heart Health
Sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.
Individuals with sleep apnoea are rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. It is known that patients recovering from heart disease may be susceptible to this disorder. Recent studies indicate that sleep apnoea is a far bigger problem in heart disease patients than originally thought.
Our research indicates that almost three-quarters of patients may have a sleep disorder in the early weeks after their heart attack. This may be partly understandable given the physical effects of surgery and medication on these patients early in treatment. Our research indicates, however, that sleep disturbances persist well after the treatment phase with 60% of patients still suffering from apnoea a year after their heart attack.
Many patients are completely unaware that sleep apnoea may be contributing to their feelings of fatigue and lack of energy. Further, our results demonstrated an alarming association of sleep problems with anxiety and depression over the first year of recovery. It is known that depression can hamper with rehabilitation of the patient. For example, patients may be less inclined to stick to diets and exercise plans when they are depressed.
One implication of results such as these is that it may be important to screen patients for presence of sleep apnoea early on in their treatment phase. If the patient can be treated for their sleeping problems early on, it is likely that rehabilitation will be more successful and the chance of future heart attacks will be greatly reduced.