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Health

Dental surgeons say they've found why snoring can kill

graphic

Blocked airways increase blood pressure, damaging arteries and leading to stroke

August 16, 1998
Web posted at: 9:26 p.m. EDT (0126 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Dental surgeons said Saturday they have discovered why snoring can kill sometimes: It can actually cause damage to the arteries.

Snoring is usually harmless, if annoying, unless a person has a particular disorder known as sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is marked by irregular breathing and snorting. Sufferers often stop breathing completely for up to several seconds. It usually affects overweight, middle-aged men and has been linked with stroke and heart disease.

A team at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Dentistry set out to see what the physical mechanism is.

Writing in the Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, they said X-rays showed it is more complicated than seems immediately obvious.

"When persons with sleep apnea fall asleep, their tongue falls back into their throat, blocking their airway. As they struggle for breath, their blood pressure soars," Dr. Arthur Friedlander, an oral surgeon who worked on the study, said in a statement.

"We believe that this rise in blood pressure damages the inner walls of the carotid arteries lining the sides of the neck," he added.

"Cholesterol and calcium stick to the injury sites and amass into calcified plaques, which block blood flow to the brain. The result is often a massive stroke."

Sleep apnea sufferers compared to others

Friedlander and his team took X-rays of the necks of 47 male veterans who had sleep apnea and compared them to the X-rays of nearly 900 other men.

Ten of the men with sleep apnea, or 21 percent, had hardened blockages in their carotid arteries. Only 22 of the 900 "control" volunteers -- just 2.5 percent -- did.

"Our results told us that the increased stroke risk was coming from the neck, not another part of the body," said Friedlander.

He said the damage was probably extensive.

"The calcium deposits are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The X-ray can't show the true size of the plaque, which is also made up of fat, platelets and other soft tissue."

When a person is suffering from sleep apnea, air cannot flow in or out of the nose or mouth. Oxygen is not taken in so carbon dioxide builds to dangerous levels in the blood.

"It's like pressing a pillow over someone's face," Friedlander said.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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