Sleep-disordered breathing is very common and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiac arrhythmia and stroke. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. The objective of this review is to provide a broad perspective of the pathophysiological and clinical aspects of the two types of apnea and to discuss their cardiovascular adverse effects. The diagnosis of sleep apnea syndrome is based on polysomnography, and severity is measured with an apnea-hypopnea index that counts the total number of apneas per hour of sleep. Recent large epidemiologic studies have shown that sleep apnea affects about 16% of men and 5% of women between 30 and 65 years of age. Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by abnormal collapse of the pharyngeal airway during sleep, snoring, vigorous inspiratory efforts causing frequent arousal, and excessive daytime drowsiness. Central sleep apnea with Cheyne-Stokes respiration is a form of periodic breathing with frequent periods of hyperventilation, and carries a poor prognosis in patients with heart failure. Obstructive apnea can also have substantial health consequences. Although the exact mechanism linking sleep apnea with cardiovascular disease is unknown, there is evidence that obstructive apnea is associated with a group of proinflammatory and prothrombic factors that are also important in the development of atherosclerosis. Nocturnal and daytime sympathetic activity is elevated after sleep apnea. Autonomic abnormalities include an increased resting heart rate, decreased cardiac rhythm activity, and increased blood pressure variability. Obstructive apnea is associated with endothelial dysfunction, increased C-reactive protein and cytokine expression, elevated fibrinogen levels and decreased fibrinolytic activity. Enhanced platelet activity and aggregation, leukocyte adhesion and accumulation of endothelial cells are common in both obstructive apnea and atherosclerosis. Surges in sympathetic activity, blood pressure, ventricular wall tension and afterload adversely affect ventricular function. Many studies have shown that patients with obstructive apnea have an increased incidence of daytime hypertension, and this syndrome is recognized as an independent risk factor for hypertension. Obstructive apnea is associated with myocardial ischemia (silent or symptomatic), acute coronary events, stroke and transient ischemic attacks, cardiac arrhythmia, pulmonary hypertension and heart failure. Central sleep apnea is frequent in severe heart failure. Most heart failure patients with pulmonary congestion chronically hyperventilate because of stimulation of vagal irritant receptors and central and peripheral chemosensitivity. When PaCO2 falls below the threshold required to stimulate breathing, the central drive to respiratory muscles and air inflow ceases and central apnea ensues. Apnea, hypoxia, CO2 retention and arousals provoke elevated sympathetic activity, increased afterload and elevated left ventricular transmural pressure, and promote the progression of heart failure. Tentative relationships have been identified between central apnea and markers of inflammation, oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction. Recent mid-terms trials showed that nocturnal use of positive airway pressure in patients with the two types of apnea alleviates symptoms, reduces sympathetic activity, improves ventricular function and quality of life, and reduces daytime drowsiness. More studies are needed to understand the mechanisms underlying the relationship between sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease, but clinicians should be aware of this link and should attempt to identify patients with these syndromes.