Over the past few decades, sleep apnea has emerged as an important potential etiologic factor in a broad range of cardiac and vascular diseases. These disease conditions include hypertension, coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, heart failure, and stroke. Recognition of the role of sleep apnea in clinical cardiology is also increasing in Japan. Although sleep apnea has been strongly linked to obesity in Western populations, in Japanese and other Asian populations there is evidence to indicate that sleep apnea may be prevalent even at lower levels of obesity. In this review we address the epidemiology of sleep apnea. Since sleep apnea includes the combined stresses of hypoxemia, apnea, and disrupted sleep, we also review briefly the potential disease mechanisms that may be activated as a consequence of sleep apnea. We further examine the role of sleep apnea in the pathophysiology and management of specific cardiovascular conditions. Overall, while the evidence of sleep apnea as a causal mechanism in cardiovascular disease is strong and increasing, definitive evidence of the etiologic role of sleep apnea has yet to be obtained. The evidence is most clear in patients with hypertension. Also remaining to be established is whether the treatment of sleep apnea prevents cardiac and vascular events. With regard to this question, although the available data strongly suggest that continuous positive airway pressure treatment is beneficial, randomized control trials are needed in order to confirm this.