The Hidden Dangers of Sleep Apnea
If your husband is a loud snorer who wakes himself up during sleep, he probably needs to be tested for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a dangerous disorder that affects more than 22 million Americans, but often goes undiagnosed.
Sleep apnea may cause a person to stop breathing during sleep hundreds of times for 10 seconds or more at a time. Left untreated, it can cause extreme daytime sleepiness, as well as a host of serious health conditions like high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and dementia. It is estimated that every year around 38,000 Americans die in their sleep from a heart attack or stroke stemming from sleep apnea. The good news is that sleep apnea is usually very treatable and many insurance companies cover the treatment.
Who Has It?
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central and mixed. Of the three, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is by far the most common and occurs when the throat muscles relax during sleep, blocking the airway.
While anyone can have it, sleep apnea is most common in middle-aged or older males who are overweight. For women, the risk increases after menopause.
The symptoms include loud snoring (however not everyone who snores has sleep apnea), long pauses of breathing, gasping or choking during sleep and daytime drowsiness. Because most of these symptoms happen during sleep, most people do not recognize them. It is usually someone who sleeps in the same room who notices it.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
To help you diagnose sleep apnea, the American Sleep Apnea Association has several diagnostic tests to take at SleepApnea.org/treat. Click on "Test Yourself."
If the screening indicates that your husband may have sleep apnea, he should consult with his doctor or a sleep specialist, who will probably recommend an overnight diagnostic sleep test. This is called a polysomnography and can take place at a sleep center lab or at home using a portable device.
Your husband is at greater risk for sleep apnea if he is overweight, smokes, or consumes excessive amounts of alcohol. Excess weight, especially around the neck, puts pressure on the airway, which can cause it to collapse. Smoking can increase the amount of inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway. Alcohol and sleeping pills can relax the muscles in the back of the throat, interfering with breathing. Addressing these issues, if necessary, is usually the first line of treatment.
If that does not eliminate the problem, mild cases of sleep apnea may respond to oral devices, such as a removable mouth guard or retainer. These devices work by positioning the lower jaw slightly forward to keep the airway open during sleep.
There are newly FDA-approved noninvasive treatment options to consider as well. One treats sleep apnea and snoring by improving tongue muscle function through a mouthpiece that is worn for just 20 minutes during the day.
The most effective and commonly prescribed treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. This involves sleeping with a snorkel-like mask that is hooked up to a machine that gently blows air up the nose to keep the passages open.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.