This is part one of a two-part report on sleep apnea. Part two will focus on the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea.
A recently published study, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health, has confirmed that untreated sleep apnea can greatly increase one’s chances of premature death. The likelihood of early death was highest among men between the ages of 40 and 70 with severe apnea, whose chances of such fatal consequences doubled, but for the entire study population, the chances of premature death was increased by 40% in participants who had untreated apnea over those without this condition.
With such sobering statistics to stare at, it becomes quite clear that apnea is not just a minor annoyance, but rather a serious condition that needs to be treated properly. But what is sleep apnea? How does it affect one’s health? What are the risk factors for apnea? These questions led me to an interview with Erica Harris, Registered Polysomnographic Technologist, who works for OhioHealth Sleep Services. Ms. Harris runs and scores the tests that help diagnose sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, and so is intimately acquainted with the condition.
Sleep apnea, in the most basic terms, is a condition in which breathing stops or decreases to the point that the body must wake up, often without the sufferer being aware of the fact, in order to draw in sufficient amounts of air. The condition takes two main forms. Obstructive Sleep Apnea, OSA, is the most common form of apnea, in which the upper airway collapses preventing the passage of air. Central Sleep Apnea, CSA, is much more rare and is usually associated with problems with the central nervous system (in which the signal to breathe is interrupted) or with patients who have a history of COPD or heart disease.
In either form, the trouble breathing leads to a decrease in the blood-oxygen levels. In turn, this leads both to increased stress on the heart which must pump more blood in order to get oxygen to vital organs and to damage to other bodily organs who are starved of that oxygen. High blood pressure and heart arrhythmias or even failure are potential effects of sleep apnea on the body. In addition, the disruption of the sleep cycle can lead to listlessness and fatigue, complicating any number of other conditions as the body loses out on rejuvenating sleep. According to a 1992 study at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, this fatigue can lead to 100-200% increase in the likelihood of being in an automobile accident.
Symptoms of sleep apnea can include a sense of excessive tiredness throughout the day, morning headaches, waking to use the bathroom throughout the night, and reports from bed partners of loud and disruptive snoring or pauses in breathing followed by a snort or gasp. The importance of monitoring these symptoms is increased in those who share some common risk factors. First, sleep apnea is much more common in men than in women. However, the gap between the sexes closes quickly in post-menopausal women. Second, apnea is also most common in those who are severely overweight or obese. However, women and those who are of normal weight should be aware of these symptoms as, just like heart disease, the stigmatizing of the condition as one affecting only one gender or body type can lead to missing a diagnose in the early stages. One’s likelihood of developing apnea can increase with aging and with a history of smoking, and there may be a genetic component as apnea can run in families.
In light of the serious nature of sleep apnea, those who suffer from these symptoms, especially those with one or more of the major risk factors, should bring their symptoms and concerns to the attention of their primary care physician or seek out a sleep specialist.
The author thanks Erica Harris, RPSGT, for the informational interview. While every effort has been made to present this topic in an accurate and understandable format, readers should be aware that errors in fact and interpretation may be present. Such errors are solely the responsibility of the author, who urges readers to discuss any health concerns they have directly with a qualified medical professional. The author has no medical background and disclaims any responsibility for reliance on the information contained herein.