Many people think of sleep apnea as a mild annoyance, in that the irregular sounds the person with the condition makes while sleeping can disrupt a partner in bed or the sleep apnea can cause the sufferer to wake up gasping for air. The medical profession now realizes that sleep apnea is far more serious than merely something that prevents a good night sleep. Doctors now know that sleep apnea can be deadly.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to such significant conditions as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, liver problems and perhaps even dementia. When an older person has moderate to severe sleep apnea and is extremely sleepy during the day, he is twice as likely to die as someone who is not in that situation.
The vast majority of people who are prime candidates for sleep apnea, have no idea that they are at risk. Sleep specialists say that most people over the age of 65 are at risk for the most common type of sleep apnea, but fewer than 10% of seniors get tested for the condition. People often think that the only ones likely to develop sleep apnea are overweight men who snore, but this is not the case. As we get older, women also develop the risk for the condition.
You Might Have Sleep Apnea If …
It is easier to be aware that you might have sleep apnea, if you have the obvious classic symptoms, like snoring and waking up gasping for air. However, not everyone has these signs. You might want to talk with your primary care doctor if you:
- Do not feel as alert or clear-headed as you used to
- Have difficulty focusing
- Wake up feeling tired
- Wake up with a headache that goes away as you get into your day
How to Test for Sleep Apnea
A sleep specialist will evaluate your symptoms and determine, if you need to have a sleep study, also called polysomnography, to assess whether you have sleep apnea. There are typically three types of sleep tests, including:
- The standard sleep test performed overnight at a sleep center. A technician will hook up a computer to sensors on your chest, legs, scalp, temples, and a clip on your finger or ear. The sensors will monitor your heart rate, breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, brain waves and eye movements, while you sleep.
- Some people have difficulty falling asleep at traditional sleep centers, so some of the facilities offer an alternative. They perform sleep studies at hotels, rather than in a sterile laboratory environment.
- It is possible to do a home test, in which you get a portable monitor from the sleep center and attach it to yourself at home. The center will analyze the results after you return the device. The downside of home testing is that it is far less accurate than the other two options.
Treatments for Sleep Apnea
Physicians offer many suggestions for treating sleep apnea, including:
- Avoid alcohol for several hours before bedtime
- Quit smoking
- Lose weight
- Use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine
A CPAP machine works by blowing air into your throat through a mask you wear all night. The machine contains a pump. About one-third of people stop using CPAP devices, because they find the mask uncomfortable or the machine too noisy for them to sleep. Experts urge patients to try different types of masks, since there are several options.
AARP. “Why You Should Take Sleep Apnea Seriously.” (accessed March 21, 2019) https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2019/what-is-sleep-apnea.html