According to several published studies, the risk of death from sleep apnea is real. The effects of sleep apnea go well beyond snoring and restless sleep. Indeed, as a person experiences sleep apnea symptoms, a number of negative consequences can occur in the body including elevated blood pressure, low blood oxygen levels, high carbon dioxide levels, blood clots, and a disturbed heart rhythm. As the sufferer continually struggles to breathe throughout the night, his sympathetic nervous system takes a beating; literally struggling to survive. A study published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea were most likely to have a heart attack during the night while sleeping; just the opposite that people without OSA experience. This study conducted at the Mayo Clinic showed that people with sleep apnea suffered twice as many cardiac events while sleeping than while awake. Another study indicated that mortality risk increases by a factor of six for sleep apnea patients.
Do I have your attention? If that wasn’t bad enough, sleep apnea sufferers face additional risks from lack of sleep. Another study showed that sleep apnea patients were up to five times more likely to be involved in a serious car accident; most likely caused by lack of sleep and drowsiness while behind the wheel.
Who is at Risk of Death from Sleep Apnea?
You probably have questions. Exactly what is sleep apnea? Are you one of those people experiencing sleep apnea? Are you at risk of death from sleep apnea? What should I do if I suspect I have sleep apnea? First of all, there are three main types of sleep apnea; central, obstructive and complex or mixed. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the most common type, obstructive sleep apnea which occurs in about 84% of cases.
In obstructive sleep apnea, a person’s airway becomes constricted at night, using while lying flat in bed. As he tries to breathe, his restricted airway blocks the flow of air into his lungs. This can occur from five to as many as 50 times per hour and can last for 10 or more seconds each time. As the level of oxygen in the blood decreases due to lack of oxygen and the level of carbon dioxide increases, the brain signals the sufferer to wake up. As the person struggles for air, they often feel like they are choking. This same process happens over and over throughout the night causing stress and disturbing normal sleep. The sleep apnea sufferer often awakes feeling tired and groggy in the morning. Other side effects include loss of concentration and focus and even increased risk of developing diabetes and hypertension. Sound familiar?
Men and women, children and adults can develop sleep apnea at any age, although older adults are at the greatest risk. Oftentimes excess weight or obesity is a contributing factor. Perhaps you thought it wasn’t that big a deal and you could manage it yourself. Think again. Fortunately, sleep apnea can usually be diagnosed and treated successfully. Great strides have been made in developing sleep apnea treatments over the last 20 years.
So, how do you know if you have sleep apnea? Often a person with obstructive sleep apnea will snore while sleeping but it’s not definitive. People can snore for other reasons. Since the sufferer is sleeping albeit poorly, they often don’t recognize many of the warning signs and symptoms. Sleep apnea can be a difficult disorder to diagnose without the proper equipment but fortunately there are sleep studies or ploysomnography tests that can accurately diagnose the condition. Many sleep apnea clinics and hospitals now offer this type of service. If you suspect you or a loved one might suffer from sleep apnea, don’t wait. See your doctor and get tested. And if the tests are positive, get treatment.
Treatment to Prevent Death from Sleep Apnea
Typically, sleep apnea sufferers are treated with continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machines. CPAP treatment involves wearing a small air mask that covers the nose and/or mouth. By exuding a continuous stream of positive air pressure, CPAP machines gently force the person’s airways to remain open during the night, thereby preventing the “obstructive” closure that typifies obstructive sleep apnea. Many sleep apnea devices have also been developed. These oral appliances are worn at night and work to realign the jaws or tongue to help prevent airway blockage. If those sleep apnea treatments don’t work, there are several sleep apnea surgical procedures available that have proven very effective. These include surgery to realign and move the jaw and surgery to remove excess tissue in the throat and/or tongue.
If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, there are a number of lifestyle changes you may be encouraged to also consider. These include weight loss, since obesity is thought to be the leading contributing factor to obstructive sleep apnea as the accumulated fat and tissue in the neck can contribute to blocked airways.
Also take into consideration sleeping in a comfortable position that allows you to breathe normally without compromising or blocking your airways, such as on your side. Knowing which position is best for you not only decreases the risk of sleep apnea but can also reduce the possibility of snoring. There are also other remedies and cures that include anti-snoring sprays and sleep apnea pillows for improved positioning. While they are low cost remedies, their efficacy is less well known.
Additional risk factors for sleep apnea include smoking, excessive use of alcohol, sleeping pills, sedatives and excessive caffeine intake. If you reduce or eliminate the use of these products, you may help alleviate your sleep apnea symptoms. Combined with the CPAP treatment, you can reduce your risk of death from sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea doesn’t just cause snoring; it’s a serious medical condition that afflicts over 20 million Americans and causes significant medical complications, including death. If you suspect you or a loved one has sleep apnea, talk to a doctor and get help. The danger of death from sleep apnea is real.