Sleep apnea is a condition where a person’s airway collapses during sleep, causing them to stop breathing multiple times throughout the night. It affects an estimated 15 to 30 percent of males and 10 to 15 percent of females. While it is more common in older adults, men, and those with obesity, it can also affect people of all ages. Sleep apnea is linked to various health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and dementia.
During sleep apnea episodes, the brain senses the drop in oxygen and signals the body to wake up, causing the person to gasp for air and open their airway. These episodes can go unnoticed by the person experiencing them, but their bed partner may notice the struggle to breathe. Sleep apnea can lead to daytime sleepiness, headaches, fatigue, lack of alertness, and cognitive issues. It can also increase the risk of neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.
The causes of sleep apnea can vary, with older age, being male, and excess body weight being common risk factors. However, even children can develop sleep apnea, and there may be genetic predispositions as well. Anatomical factors such as large tonsils, adenoids, or a smaller airway can contribute to the condition.
Sleep apnea is diagnosed through a sleep study, either in a specialized sleep lab or through a home-based sleep test. The most effective treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open. Other treatments include weight loss, oral appliances, and positional therapy.
Sleep apnea can have various consequences, including accidents due to daytime sleepiness, cognitive and memory problems, cardiac arrhythmias, metabolic issues, and worsening of existing health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. However, with appropriate treatment, many people with sleep apnea experience significant improvements in their health and well-being.