In a large Canadian study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers showed that when matching subjects for factors that typically predispose people to getting diabetes, such as age, sex, body mass index, neck circumference, smoking, income status and comorbid illnesses at baseline, people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) were more likely to develop diabetes than those without it.

We measure the severity of OSA by a number of means, including the average number of obstructive events that occur during sleep. We call this index the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI).  The increased risk of developing diabetes increased as the AHI increased.  The study included 8,678 patients between 1994 and 2010 undergoing sleep studies and following them to see if they went on to develop diabetes.

Clearly the goal is to avoid developing obstructive sleep apnea in the first place by living as healthy a lifestyle as possible. However, sometimes OSA is unavoidable based on your anatomy, such as facial structure that leads to more easily collapsible airways. In those cases, correcting OSA early is likely to improve your chances, though that needs to be researched in future study.

“After adjusting for other potential causes, we were able to demonstrate a significant association between OSA severity and the risk of developing diabetes,” said Dr. Kendzerska, one of the principal researchers in this study. “Our findings that prolonged oxygen desaturation, shorter sleep time and higher heart rate were associated with diabetes are consistent with the pathophysiological mechanisms thought to underlie the relationship between OSA and diabetes.”

“The OSA-related predictors of increased diabetes risk that we found in our study may allow for early preventative interventions in these patients,” said Dr. Kendzerska.