Sleep apnea is a broad term for several disorders that cause an individual to stop breathing during sleep. Another term for this type of problem is “sleep disordered breathing”. The apnea causes a drop in the amount of oxygen in the blood circulation and reaching the brain.
Sleep disordered breathing includes:
- obstructive sleep apnea, in which the upper airway actually collapses during sleep, blocking airflow
- central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to send the right signals to ensure breathing continues during sleep
- mixed sleep apnea, which is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea
- hypopnea, which doesn’t involve total cessation of breathing but can still lead to a lack of oxygen
The affected individual’s bed partner is usually the one to notice and describe the symptoms. The person often snores loudly. The snoring is punctuated by repeated pauses in breathing, snorting, choking, gasping or sudden awakening. Because of the interrupted sleep the person with apnea may have daytime headaches and fatigue and a loss of mental alertness. Sleep apnea can eventually lead to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
About 25% of people over 65 have sleep apnea. It tends to affect men far more than women. Being overweight is the most important contributing factor: the excess weight narrows the airways and makes obstruction easier. Other risk factors are:
- naturally small upper airways
- jaw or nose deformities
- thyroid or neurologic impairments
- lung disease
- overindulgence in alcohol
If you have been told you have sleep apnea, you will likely be asked to make changes to your lifestyle such as quit smoking, lose weight, and decrease your alcohol consumption. Sleeping on your side rather than your back can also be an important preventive measure.
Other treatment methods for sleep apnea include :
- a mask device that delivers a constant flow of air and oxygen into the airways during sleep (often known as CPAP for “continuous positive airway pressure”)
- a specially designed dental appliance
- an antidepressant medication
- altering the shape of the airway with laser surgery
Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. If you have concerns about your sleep patterns, or that of your bed partner, consult your doctor.