What is narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a chronic, debilitating sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and an inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally. If you have narcolepsy, you may experience “sleep attacks” where you fall asleep for short periods unintentionally despite fighting the urge to sleep. These sleep attacks may happen at inappropriate or potentially dangerous times, often in the middle of daily activities like walking, eating or driving. There is no cure for narcolepsy, and it is a lifelong condition, but there are medications and lifestyle adaptations to help you manage it.
What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?
Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Episodes of irresistible sleepiness (called “sleep attacks).
- Difficulty staying awake.
- Waking frequently throughout the night.
- Sleep paralysis (when you’re awake but can’t move).
- Sudden muscle weakness or loss of muscle control (cataplexy).
How many people are affected by narcolepsy?
An estimated 135,000 to 200,000 people in the United States have narcolepsy, but it could be even higher, as narcolepsy can often go undiagnosed. Narcolepsy often begins in childhood or adolescence, and your risk is significantly higher if you have a family history.
How is narcolepsy diagnosed and treated?
Talk to your doctor if you think you have narcolepsy. Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical and family history and recommend further testing. Narcolepsy can be diagnosed with the help of different sleep tests as well as a spinal fluid test that checks your levels of hypocretin, a key neurotransmitter that regulates sleep and is involved with narcolepsy.
There is no cure, but certain healthy sleep habits and medications can address daytime sleepiness and help you get better rest at night.
How is narcolepsy linked to cardiovascular disease and brain health?
More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between narcolepsy and cardiovascular disease, but there is compelling evidence that narcolepsy is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular comorbidities including high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. Because narcolepsy is rare and can be difficult to diagnose (or can be misdiagnosed), it’s been harder to study the connection between narcolepsy and cardiovascular disease.
There are key components of narcolepsy that are likely related to cardiovascular disease risk. For instance, narcolepsy causes changes in your blood pressure during the night, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. Most people experience a natural dip in nocturnal blood pressure, but this doesn’t always happen when you have narcolepsy, and researchers believe this could affect your heart health. There’s also evidence that deficiencies in key neurotransmitters can, more broadly, lead to an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
People with narcolepsy also have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, depression and other sleep disorders, all of which can contribute to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Narcolepsy has been found to significantly drive up the risk of stroke.