Though not limited to the elderly, sleep apnea is a condition common to many older people. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing repeatedly stops and starts while you sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea and it occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax. When this relaxation occurs, your airway narrows as you breathe in, preventing you from breathing properly. Your brain detects your inability to breathe and rouses you from your sleep so you can reopen your airway and take a deep breath in. This awakening may be so brief that you fall asleep immediately after. However, this pattern of behavior may occur several times an hour, at various times throughout the night.
Sleep apnea can affect anyone, but certain factors put you at an increased risk, including excess weight, being male, smoking cigarettes, nasal congestion, and having a family member with the disorder. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, sudden awakenings accompanied by gasps for breath, morning headaches, difficulty staying asleep, and attention problems during the day. In most cases, you may not attribute these signs and symptoms to breathing problems at night; your partner may be the first one to notice that you are having problems with your breathing while you are asleep.
If you or your partner suspects that you may have sleep apnea, you should see your primary care physician. Your physician may evaluate your signs and symptoms and provide you with a diagnosis, or may refer you to a sleep specialist, who will be able to carry out further investigations, such as overnight monitoring of your breathing during sleep.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your physician may refer you to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) to determine whether your problems are the result of blockages in your nose or throat. If your tonsils or adenoids are blocking your airway, you may need to have surgery.
For milder cases of sleep apnea that do not require surgery, your physician may recommend lifestyle changes, such as sleeping on your side or avoiding alcohol close to bedtime. If these measures do not improve your sleep apnea, or if your sleep apnea is moderate to severe, you may need to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device to help keep your airway open. This device delivers continuous air pressure through a mask placed over your nose while you sleep. The air pressure is always greater than that of the surrounding air, and keeps your upper airway passages open, preventing breathing disturbances from occurring.
Although CPAP is an effective method of treating sleep apnea, you may find it cumbersome or uncomfortable to use. If you experience problems using CPAP, see your physician. He or she may be able to make some modifications to help you feel more at ease. For example, you might need to try a different type of mask, use a humidifier alongside your CPAP device, or start with a machine that gradually increases the air pressure from low to high as you drift off to sleep.
Regardless of the type of treatment you receive for your sleep apnea, persevering with it will have many benefits. It will help reduce the impact of the condition on your quality of life and that of your partner. It can also reduce your risk of potentially serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.