Women who who suffer from a sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than men with the condition, a recent study has found.
According to the NHS OSA is a relatively common condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing.
This reduces the levels of oxygen in the blood, and common symptoms can include snoring, disrupted sleep and feeling excessively tired.
The research published in the European Respiratory Journal, suggests that people whose airways close more during sleep and whose blood oxygen levels drop below 90% more often, are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer.
But the results were most commonly seen in women, suggesting women with OSA may be at greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer than men with OSA.
The study, led by Athanasia Pataka, who is Assistant Professor of Respiratory Medicine at Aristotle University, analysed data from 19,556 people (5,789 women and 13,767 men) included in the European Sleep Apnoea Database (ESADA).
Participants were assessed for their age, BMI, smoking status and level of alcohol use, as these can impact the risk of developing cancer.
Researchers recorded how often each volunteer experienced partial or complete closure of their airways per hour of sleep, and how many times their blood oxygen levels dropped below 90 per cent.
Cancer was more common in women with OSA than men with the same condition, even when all other factors were taken into account.
The findings found that 388 people were diagnosed with a serious cancer — 160 women and 228 men.
Commenting on the findings Dr Athanasia Pataka, said: “Recent studies have shown that low blood oxygen levels during the night and disrupted sleep, which are both common in obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), may play an important role in the biology of different types of cancers.
“But this area of research is very new, and the effects of gender on the link between OSA and cancer have not been studied in detail before.”
But if you’re a female snorer or regularly wake up before the sun, there’s no need to panic just yet.
Professor Anita Simonds, from Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, who was not involved with the current study, explains that the cancer prevalence amongst the participants was actually very low.
“This study adds to the growing evidence on the possible link between the effects of OSA, such as low blood oxygen levels, and the risk of developing cancer and provides new data on potential gender differences,” she explains.
“In this study the overall cancer prevalence was low at just 2 per cent, therefore OSA patients should not be alarmed by this research.”
However, medical practitioners should be aware when assessing patients with potential OSA.
“Clinicians should continue to be vigilant when assessing patients with possible OSA, especially among women who may present with less common symptoms,” she adds.
One of the limitations of the study was researchers didn’t account for other factors that might impact cancer risk, such as exercise levels and occupation.
So while the findings do suggest a link between OSA and cancer, they shouldn’t be taken as proof OSA causes an increased risk of cancer and more research is needed to fully explore the topic.