Loud snoring is annoying, especially to those who lie awake next to snorers, unable to sleep because of the noise. But the situation may be even worse for the person doing the snoring, because it can be an indication of obstructive sleep apnea, which can cause all kinds of serious medical problems.
Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, weight gain, fatigue, memory issues and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and significantly increase the risk of certain types of cancers.
National Library of Medicine researchers estimate that some 26 percent of Americans between ages 30 and 70 have obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when the throat muscles relax and block the flow of air into the lungs during sleep, in turn cutting off the flow of oxygen to the brain, sometimes for as long as two minutes. And the American Medical Association estimates that roughly 30 million people in the United States suffer from sleep apnea — with a smaller number of them, roughly 6 million, actually getting a diagnosis.
The condition can lead to death, as it likely did for actress Carrie Fisher and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Snoring loudly and feeling tired after a night’s sleep are indicators of the disorder. So are difficulty staying asleep, waking up with a dry mouth, suffering from morning headaches, feeling overly sleepy during the day, and irritability.
Fortunately, sleep apnea’s effects can be lessened by lifestyle changes, including eating healthy and losing weight. And it can be treated with the use of a CPAP machine — which helps maintain the correct pressure for breathing in order to prevent airway blockage — which most insurance companies cover.
The problem is that many people don’t know whether they have sleep apnea, and are unsure how to find out.
Making an appointment with a sleep disorder specialist — often a pulmonologist, an otolaryngologist or neurologist — is the first step. The doctor will probably recommend a sleep study, which, again, is usually covered by health insurance.
And now it is easier than ever to be tested for sleep apnea. Up until recently, sleep studies were conducted only in labs, where a patient had to spend the night. Though many experts still recommend a lab test, today the test can be also done in your home, using a small monitoring device that looks a lot like an Apple watch. It records your breathing, vital signs and brain activity as you sleep, and the data will indicate patterns, including the different stages of sleep and how often you wake up, and determine why your sleep is disrupted.
Hundreds of pages of information from the study will be analyzed, and after the doctor reviews the results, recommendations will be made that, more often than not, will include using a CPAP machine.
Small and unobtrusive, the machine can be placed on a bedside table. It provides steady air pressure through a mask worn by the user to the trachea, or windpipe, keeping it open to allow for unobstructed airflow. This will often stop its user from snoring.
The National Institutes of Health have found that men younger than 50 are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea than women. But after women turn 50, they, too, often develop the disorder. If you suspect that you may have it — if you sleep uncomfortably or if your sleep is regularly interrupted — it’s imperative that you find out for sure.
A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center examined how sleep apnea patients’ metabolism is affected during the night when they neglect to use their CPAP machines. Researchers found the apnea caused a spike in blood sugar, heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones.
The results were compared to what might happen if someone were asked to speak before a crowd. “It’s very similar to that type of a stress response,” Dr. Jonathan Jun, a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist at the center, said. “I would liken sleep apnea to something like that happening on a nightly basis.
“CPAP is the first-line treatment,” Jun added, “and it’s very effective.”