New research published in the European Respiratory Journal analyzed data on 20,000 adults with sleep apnea to conclude that women with severe sleep apnea have higher rates of cancer. Although the scientists behind the study cannot say that sleep apnea causes cancer, their findings do show a unquestionable link between the two for women.
The researchers analyzed data from the European Sleep Apnea Database (ESADA), which gathers medical information from 33 centers across Europe, including information regarding obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. According to Medical News Today, “OSA is a condition in which a person experiences short and repeated interruptions of breathing while asleep. The condition results from the inability of the throat muscles to keep the airway open.”
The resulting disturbed sleep and insufficient oxygen that those with OSA experience can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, memory problems, and even mood disturbance. Ludger Grote, an adjunct professor and chief physician in sleep medicine at Gothenburg University in Sweden commented that these factors make it “reasonable to assume that sleep apnea is a risk factor for cancer or that both conditions have common risk factors, such as [being] overweight.” Nevertheless, Grote asserted, "On the other hand, it is less likely that cancer leads to sleep apnea."
In their study, the researcher determined a possible association between intermittent nocturnal hypoxia and higher rates of cancer, an association that was particularly higher in women than in men. In fact, two to three times higher!
"It's impossible to say for sure what causes underlie the association between sleep apnea and cancer, but the indication means we need to study it in more depth," said Grote.
Given the study’s conclusions, future investigations could potentially focus on breast or womb cancers that are specific to women.