We know that sleep apnea is harmful. In fact, we keep finding new ways that it is harmful to us every day. One of the big questions that remains unanswered is how well sleep apnea treatment can help prevent these harms. There are many obstacles to showing this, and, in fact, many previous studies have not shown benefit from treatment.
But now a new study shows just how significant the benefit can be: people who treat their sleep apnea can reduce their risk of death by 62%! Not only does this study show benefit, it also gives us good hints why previous studies haven’t shown benefit.
All-Around Death Risk Reduction
To explore the benefit of sleep apnea treatment, French researchers started with the data from the Sleep Heart Health Study, which recruited more than 6400 Americans in the late 1990s and followed them through 2010. To better tease out the details, researchers looked at 11 years of data from nearly 400 participants who had sleep apnea and were obese. Of these people, 81 were prescribed CPAP, while 311 were not.
Those that were prescribed CPAP had a 62% lower risk of death than those without a prescription. After adjusting for risk factors, they found that the risk reduction was more likely 42%.
Why Couldn’t Previous Studies Find the Same Results?
With this huge reduction in death risk, you’d think that more studies would show similar results. However, there are many reasons why this study is able to show benefits but many others will not.
First, this study is longer than most other studies. It’s hard to initiate a study that’s 20 years long. It’s expensive and hard to put together. In this study, results indicated that it might take six or seven years before the use of CPAP might show benefit. Studies shorter than that probably won’t show any benefit.
And this study also had the benefit of having a large population. Large populations increase statistical power of studies, letting them show smaller benefit. In addition, it allows for researchers to select out subsets of the population that are more likely to show benefit–such as obese patients in this case.
But there’s another reason why it’s hard to show benefit from sleep apnea treatment. Most of the time, doctors treat the condition with CPAP. However, long-term studies continue to show that compliance rates for CPAP are only about 34%. This means that fully two-thirds of people who are prescribed CPAP don’t actually use it as they’re supposed to. Under those conditions, it’s very hard to prove the benefit of a treatment. In this study, researchers don’t include compliance figures in their abstract or press release, so we’re not sure if they just don’t know compliance (monitoring 20 years ago was not nearly as sophisticated) or if they just don’t want to talk about it.
A CPAP Alternative in Denver
If you are unhappy with CPAP, either because you don’t like the thought of it, or you’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for you, you might be able to get similar benefits with an alternative treatment.
Oral appliance therapy can be as good as CPAP for many people, and its compliance rates are much better. That’s because it’s more comfortable, less invasive, and less complicated.