Sleep apnea sufferers have higher risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest, study finds

(CBS News) People with sleep apnea have a higher risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest, a new, long-term study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology finds. The study was based on research collected by the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Centers.

Up to 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and many of them don't know it. Dr. Carol Ash, director of Sleep Medicine at Meridian Health, noted children can have it, and 16 percent of the people who have it aren't obese, as is the common perception of the disorder.

Sleep apnea, Ash explained on "CBS This Morning," occurs when you go to sleep and your throat muscles relax -- and instead of narrow as it does normally -- instead, the throat collapses down.

She said, "If you stop breathing for 10 seconds five times an hour, we say you have sleep apnea. ... If you hear someone snoring and then you hear (a choking noise) and then suddenly they stop, the noise will be silent, that's an apnea."

When your brain finally realizes your body is in a state of respiratory emergency, it reacts, sending adrenaline, which pumps up the blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammatory substances. As a result, blood vessels can be injured, and over time, you're at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

To combat this issue, Ash suggests a sleep gadget called a CPAP, which she called "the gold standard." "It can be life-saving," she said. "Essentially, it blows air into the back of the throat to hold the throat open."

Surgery and weight loss are also options for treatment.

So how do you know if you have sleep apnea? Snoring can be a symptom, but hypertension, and interestingly enough, neck circumference may can also be an indicator for the disorder, according to Ash.

To find out more about the disorder and how it can be detected and treated, watch the video above.