Can You Die from Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea is an extremely dangerous condition that can cause all sorts of health problems with your body. The main issue with this sleep disorder is that your breathing passages become blocked during sleep (or, less commonly, your brain “forgets” to tell your body to breathe regularly) and your body goes without oxygen for too many seconds at a time. And since humans spend an average of 25-35% of their lives sleeping, this is a significant amount of your life that your body is deprived of much needed oxygen. 

In mild cases, a respiratory “episode” may happen a few times per hour, and in extreme cases it could be 30 or more times per hour. Ultimately sleep apnea causes the body to be starved of oxygen which can create a whole host of symptoms and health issues.

But Can You Die from Sleep Apnea?

The answer is quite a bit more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but sleep apnea has certainly been a contributing factor in the declining health and deaths of many people. The most famous person to recently die of causes possibly related to sleep apnea was Carrie Fisher, the actress famous for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. In fact, her death has caused a great deal of media attention to the condition of sleep apnea, which may be helpful in educating others on the dangers of this disorder and how to treat it.

Some people would argue that a person cannot technically die from sleep apnea because the brain forces the body awake and resumes breathing before suffocation can actually occur. So if the question is whether or not people can suffocate in their sleep from sleep apnea, then the answer is likely no. But that should in no way diminish the fact that sleep apnea is a dangerous condition that can certainly be life-threatening if left untreated.

Disrupting circadian rhythms, creating imbalance in body chemistry and brain chemistry, speeding up the heart rate, elevating blood pressure, interrupting cardiac function, causing weight gain, and creating emotional distress are just a few of the reasons that sleep apnea may be just the tip of the iceberg when considering related health problems that the condition can cause.

How Many People Die from Sleep Apnea?

While mortality rates related to sleep apnea can be complicated, it is estimated that at least 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with a large majority of these cases remaining undiagnosed. Some sleep apnea statistics reveal that around 38,000 or more people die each year in the United States from heart disease that is directly related to sleep apnea.

Untreated sleep apnea can leave you susceptible to a variety of other health conditions including:

  • Two to three times higher risk of suffering from a stroke (American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2001)
  • 30% increase in risk of having a heart attack or dying for people who have had sleep apnea for five years or more (Yale University study)
  • Higher risk of having a heart attack (American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2001)
  • Over three time higher risk of premature death (Sleep, Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, 2008—eighteen year follow up)

Can a Child Die from Sleep Apnea?

We have learned that sleep apnea is a dangerous condition for adults as it can cause a myriad of other conditions which can lead to a great deal of health problems, including premature death. But many parents may be worried and wondering whether or not their child’s tendency to snore or gasp during sleep should be a cause for alarm.

Here are some important questions to ask to determine if your child might be at risk for sleep apnea:

  • Does my child snore? (Around 10% of children who snore do so because of sleep apnea)
  • Does my child breathe through his or her mouth? (Mouth breathing is often associated with enlarged adenoids or tonsils which can lead to sleep apnea)
  • Does my child have a poor attention span or behavioral issues?
  • Does my child have difficulty with concentration?
  • Does my child have pauses during breathing while sleeping?
  • Does my child wet the bed?
  • Is my child obese?

As with adults, the likelihood of actually dying due to suffocation because of lack of breathing is highly unlikely in children with sleep apnea. As the brain ultimately will trigger the body to wake up and breathe, so instantaneous death is not likely to be the result of sleep apnea in children. On the other hand, sleep apnea in children can be a dangerous complication for their health and a diagnosis should be sought right away.

Diagnosing a child with sleep apnea can be complicated, so your medical professional or sleep expert may take various approaches whether performed in a sleep lab or in your own home. Non-invasive equipment for a sleep study may include measuring brain activity, muscle movements, breathing, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and end tidal CO2. Any result indicating that your child has had even one interrupted breathing episode per hour will mean a diagnosis of sleep apnea. More severe diagnoses

Since the most common cause of sleep apnea in children is enlarged adenoids or tonsils, this is often the first point of connection for medical professionals. If this is the case, then a simple surgery may correct sleep apnea in the vast majority of cases.

Other causes of sleep apnea may be related to allergies, asthma, oral/dental problems or other sorts of issues. Your doctor will recommend whether or not a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine should be part of your child’s treatment.


Although sleep apnea is a condition that should be taken very seriously, the good news is that it comes with a great deal of hope when treated appropriately. The sooner you or your family member is diagnosed and treated, the more quickly your health can begin the restoration process. Whether through healthy lifestyle changes and weight loss, a change in sleeping position with a new mattress or pillow, or the use of a breathing machine at night during sleep, sleep apnea can be treated with much success.

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