BACKGROUND: Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. It has remained unclear whether or not it is progressive. The evolution of OSA was examined in a retrospective case note study of 55 unselected patients of mean (SD) age 55.8 (10) years with mild to moderate disease untreated by interventional methods such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or surgery. Correlations between clinical and functional variables, upper airway anatomy, and change in disease severity were also investigated. METHODS: Patients underwent full polysomnography on two occasions (T0 and Tx) at a mean interval of 77 (50) weeks (range 17-229). In addition, upper airway imaging with computed tomographic scanning or cephalometry had been performed in 43 patients at T0. Morbidity before, during, and after the study period was assessed by questionnaire, as was smoking history and alcohol and sedative intake. RESULTS: The apnoea hypopnoea index (AHI) for the group as a whole increased from 21.8 (11.5) to 33.4 (21.3) (p = 0.0001). Using a 25% change in AHI to divide patients into worsened, stable, and improved groups showed that, although most of the patients deteriorated, 25 patients improved or remained stable. The change in AHI was not correlated with body mass index which remained stable at 29.7 (5.4) kg/m2 versus 29.7 (5.6) kg/m2. There was a trend for apnoea duration to increase. No patient reported increased alcohol consumption and only one patient reported increased use of sedatives between T0 and Tx. No correlation was found between change in AHI and age, time between recordings, anatomical measurements of the upper airway, respiratory function, oximetry, or arterial blood gas tensions. Total cardiovascular and cerebrovascular morbidity was high: hypertension (26 patients, 46%), cardiac arrhythmia (17 patients, 33%), angina (12 patients, 23%), myocardial infarction (10 patients, 19%), and stroke (10 patients, 19%). Twenty nine patients (52%) were prescribed CPAP after Tx, two of whom went on to have maxillofacial surgery. These 29 treated patients had significantly higher values of AHI at T0 and Tx and greater change in AHI than the untreated patients. CONCLUSIONS: This study shows that mild to moderate OSA has a tendency to worsen in the absence of significant weight gain and that upper airway anatomy and clinical variables do not appear to be useful in predicting progression. It follows that mild to moderate OSA justifies systematic follow up. Deterioration in AHI over a mean of 17 months led to interventional treatment in over 50% of patients in the study.
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