The National Sleep Foundation estimates that over 37 million older adults are plagued with sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA); a debilitating and often life-threatening condition. Many patients are unaware of the condition and its complications, resulting in an estimated 90% of cases remaining undiagnosed.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing stops during sleep in intervals that may last from 10 seconds or longer, a result of a collapsed airway that prevents air from getting to the lungs. These “apneic events,” which can occur as frequently as one to three times per minute, disrupt healthy sleep. Most sufferers do not awaken when they occur, however, these events do affect the quality of sleep and cause a number of short-term and long-lasting effects.
The most common short-term effect is excessive daytime sleepiness. Many sleep apnea sufferers awaken feeling exhausted, which often translates to a lack of concentration. This poor quality of sleep exacerbates existing conditions such as dementia, and poor daytime performance, compromising ones quality of life. For example, you may feel too tired to play with your grandchildren, or have trouble staying awake while driving.
Clinical research has also linked sleep apnea to other diseases. These conditions are prevalent in the aging population. Most notably cardiovascular disease, stroke and death as shown by a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal found that having obstructive sleep apnea increases one’s risk for having a stroke and/or dying, as much as twofold. Recent research has also linked sleep apnea to insulin resistance and diabetes,depression and sexual dysfunction.
Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea
If you or your bed partner snore loudly or gasp for air while sleeping, it may be a sign of this serious sleep disorder. You should speak with your doctor, who may recommend spending the night in a sleep lab to get a polysomnography test. Obstructive sleep apnea can usually be treated successfully.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is the most effective and common treatment method. Treatment with CPAP involves the use of a light, mask-like device which blows pressurized air through the nasal passages, keeping the airway open and allowing the patient to breathe normally while they sleep. Other treatment options include surgery for the removal of oversized adenoids, tonsils or nasal polyps to increase the size of the airway. If surgery is not an option, a dental appliance can be helpful too.
Common symptoms of OSA include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness, OSA sufferers may often fall asleep easily during passive activities and in severe cases while at work, on the phone or even while driving.
- Loud, disruptive snoring or nocturnal pauses in breathing. Snoring usually interferes with the bed partners sleep.
- Gasping or choking for air during sleep OSA sufferers might appear to experience an apparent struggle to breathe.
- Restless sleep Body movements often accompany awakening at the end of an apneic episode. Depression and irritability OSA sufferers experience noticeable problems while performing daily activities.
- Sexual dysfunction OSA sufferers may experience a lack of sexual desire due to fatigue and even impotence in men.
- Feeling of grogginess, dullness and morning headaches These additional symptoms are a result of poor quality of sleep.
Like many other disorders, knowledge is the best tool with which to manage or prevent obstructive sleep apnea. Knowing the correct precautions, behavioral changes or treatments is the key to managing the disorder, ensuring healthy sleep, and living a productive life.