Sleep apnea is one of a cluster of conditions known as sleep-disordered breathing. Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. Partial disruptions to breath are known as hypopneas, and full cessations of breathing are known as apneas. These breathing interruptions can be extremely brief or can last for several seconds.
The severity of sleep apnea is commonly measured by the number of apneas and hypopneas occurring in an hour of sleep. Mild sleep apnea includes at least five episodes of interrupted breathing during an hour, while more severe forms of sleep apnea can consist of 30 or more episodes. The disordered breathing of sleep apnea makes nightly rest fragmented, causing a significant decline in sleep quality. Repeated awakenings—even ones the sleeper isn’t aware of—prevent the natural cycling through the stages of sleep. People with sleep apnea spend more time in light sleep, and less time in the deeper, more restorative phases of sleep.
A common problem
26% of adults aged 30-70 have sleep apnea, according to estimates. Many sleep experts believe that these figures under-estimate the actual number of people with sleep apnea. Evidence suggests that sleep apnea is significantly under-diagnosed, especially among women.
During episodes of sleep apnea, the muscles at the back of the throat collapse, obstructing the airway and interrupting the normal flow of breath. Sometimes these episodes can cause the sleeper to wake, but often people with sleep apnea aren’t aware of their difficulty breathing. Sleep apnea is often, but not always, accompanied by snoring. Sleep apnea is sometimes first identified by bed partners who notice the snoring and pauses in breathing associated with sleep apnea. In other cases, sleep apnea is discovered as a result of its waking symptoms, which can be frustrating and even debilitating.
Can interfere with daily life
Sleep apnea, left untreated, can have a significant effect on daytime functioning. Excessive daytime tiredness—feeling drowsy throughout the day— is a hallmark symptom of sleep apnea. Difficulty concentrating and problems with memory are also common symptoms. People with sleep apnea sometimes experience frequent headaches too. The chronic poor sleep associated with sleep apnea contributes to irritability and can make relationships more difficult. Untreated sleep apnea also raises the risks for other health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, as well as elevated risks for injury and accident.
Know your risks
Who is at risk for sleep apnea? Anyone can experience this sleep disorder, but certain factors can increase the likelihood of developing it. Being overweight is a significant risk factor for sleep apnea. Excess weight, particularly weight that’s carried in the torso, is strongly associated with greater likelihood of sleep apnea. Maintaining a healthy weight is one important way to help protect against this sleep disorder. Sleep apnea occurs more frequently with age, but this sleep disorder can occur at any age. Even children can experience the disruptive effects of sleep apnea. Men are more likely than women to have sleep apnea, especially during younger stages of life. With age, the risks of sleep apnea for men and women appear to level. Certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, can increase the incidence of sleep apnea. Smoking irritates and inflames the tissues of the back of the throat, contributing to the narrowing of the airway. Alcohol consumed too close to bedtime can exaggerate the natural relaxation of the throat muscles, making collapse of the airway more likely. Quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol within four hours of bedtime can help relieve sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is treatable
Learning about sleep apnea and its risks can be scary. But it’s important to understand how this form of sleep-disordered breathing can affect health and quality of life. And there’s some good news associated with sleep apnea: effective treatments exist that can remedy the breathing problems that interfere with sleep. These treatments can reduce the health risks linked to sleep apnea, and bring a return to high quality, refreshing sleep. For some people, shifting positions for sleep can help alleviate breathing difficulties, including sleep apnea. Sleeping on one’s side and avoiding sleeping on the back, may diminish the frequency of breathing pauses. Losing weight is another strategy for helping alleviate sleep apnea. Many people who lose weight can reduce the severity of sleep apnea or eliminate it altogether.
The most common form of therapy for sleep apnea is CPAP, continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP devices are used during sleep to keep the airway open by delivering a continuous stream of air. For some people, wearing a CPAP mask at night can take a little getting used to, but most people learn to sleep comfortably with the device, and feel significant improvements to their nightly rest. CPAP is prescribed by a doctor after an evaluation to identify sleep apnea.
Staying alert to the symptoms of sleep apnea can help you remedy the problem before it comes serious, for the benefit of your nightly rest and your overall health.