May 14, 2015
Snoring seems to be a staple of old age. About 60% of men and 40% of women over 60 snore habitually, but few give any thought to it. At the same time, snoring may indicate something much more serious than old age: sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder suffered by about 20% of the populace… whether they know it or not.
Sleep apnea comes in 3 different varieties, all of which are characterized by brief interruptions in the breathing cycle during sleep. These interruptions are called “apneas,” which occur 5 times an hour or more. Their nature, length and cause determines the kind of sleep apnea they suffer from.
Central sleep apnea is the least common type, making up about 0.4% of all cases. Its cause is neurobiological, as the brain regions that control respiration become unable to facilitate steady breathing. This restricted ability or inability to breathe usually lasts for 10 to 30 seconds, but can last for up to two entire minutes.
Obstructive sleep apnea accounts for the majority of cases and is also the type that is most prevalently associated with heavy snoring. Whereas CSA originates from the brain, OSA comes about when the upper respiratory tract is constricted due to an infection, brain injury, obesity, or any other cause of obstruction.
Complex or mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both types that initially manifests as OSA. Patients are diagnosed and receive treatment, usually in the form of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). However, their feedback mechanism is then shown to be unable to regulate respiration, which is the primary indicator of central sleep apnea.
By definition, apneas do not occur when one is awake and conscious, which often leaves the affected individual unaware of their condition. It is not uncommon for those with sleep apnea to go years or even decades without treatment, which can lead to serious medical consequences. These include:
Knowing the risks is crucial in preventing sleep apnea and getting it treated before serious side-effects arise. While this sleep disorder hardly discriminates by age, sex or race, males and people over the age of 40 years old are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with it.
For obstructive sleep apnea in particular, lifestyle is a significant factor that increases one’s risk. Obesity can increase soft tissues around the respiratory tract and therefore constrict it, as is symptomatic of OSA. Another significant component is the use of drugs and alcohol. Smokers are three times as likely to develop OSA than non-smokers, and depressants such as alcohol and tranquilizers can decrease muscle tone and make the upper airway more narrow by relaxing bodily tissue.
Due to both the prevalence of sleep apnea and the difficulty in recognizing on one’s own, it has been a crucial public health concern to make diagnosing it as easy and convenient as possible. The Internet has given rise to innumerable do-it-yourself diagnostic surveys, although the accuracy of such tests remains debatable.
Individuals at risk for mild to moderate sleep apnea may also make use of “home sleep tests”, non-invasive applicators that measure one’s levels of blood oxygen in order to determine their risk. However, for persons exhibiting moderate to highly severe symptoms of sleep apnea, a professional diagnosis that detects and records pauses in breathing is highly recommended.
There are numerous forms of treatment for sleep apnea, but the standard and most generally accepted method of treatment is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. In CPAP therapy, a patient will sleep while wearing a mask that continuously applies pressure from a connected CPAP machine. As long as the mask and machine are used, this pressure succeeds in keeping open the airways that would otherwise be obstructed during an apnea.
Due to their invasiveness, the use of CPAPs is usually met with resistance by sufferers of sleep apnea. However, technological improvements have made great strides in accommodating patients and maximizing their comfort. Modern CPAP equipment may now include a humidifier, flexible mask, quiet motor, and auto-dimming LEDs for more restful sleep. With more comfort, more patients have come to comply with their therapy, overcome sleep apnea, and lead healthier and happier lives.