While much is known about the link between obstructive sleep apnea and an increased risk of death or debilitation due to cardiovascular disease, a recent study presented at the American Thoracic Society reveals new and startling evidence about a link between sleep apnea and cancer-related death. Previous research on mice had revealed how some cancers, such as melanoma, grow faster in low oxygen environments, yet no human data had been collected... until now.
Can Sleep Apnea cause Cancer?
The latest study was conducted at the University of Wisconsin and followed over 1500 sleep apnea patients for two decades. The researchers’ goal was to investigate cancer incidence in adults age 30-60 in a long-term study which assessed the presence and severity of sleep apnea at the outset. The study revealed that patients who started out with severe sleep apnea were nearly 5 times as likely to die from a cancer-related cause. In addition, patients with blood samples that had the lowest oxygen content were nearly 9 times as likely to die of a cancer-related cause over the course of the study.
While concerning, this study does not establish sleep apnea as a cause for cancer. Cancer is likely the result of multiple different factors that can be influenced by different disease states. There is good evidence that some cancers grow better in low oxygen states, and as such, sleep apnea may either encourage cancers to grow or become more resistant to treatment. However, this direct link has not been experimentally established, and requires further research. What this study does suggest, is that we should be proactive about diagnosing and treating sleep apnea, especially in patients with a known diagnosis of cancer, or those with an increased risk of developing cancer due to other factors.