Recognize and treat sleep apnea for better health and sleep

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that affects up to one in four Canadian adults, according to the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH). An estimated 45% to 60% of people over 60, however, are reported to have sleep apnea, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

Older adults with sleep apnea are less likely to seek medical attention and the condition may not be recognized by doctors in older patients because its symptoms of fatigue, drowsiness and morning headaches are attributed to other diseases, or to aging itself, CMAJ says.

The word “apnea” means no breathing and refers to pauses in breathing that occur during sleep. With each pause, blood oxygen levels are reduced and the sleeper must wake briefly to resume breathing. This results in daytime sleepiness, poorer quality of life and can contribute to memory loss and poor concentration, says the Public Health Agency of Canada. OSA is also associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

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So, it’s important to recognize possible symptoms. These include not feeling rested after a night’s sleep, feeling sleepy during the day and waking up with a headache, says HealthLinkBC. Your bed partner may notice that while you sleep you stop breathing and often snore loudly. You may also gasp or choke, and toss and turn.

If you or your partner notice these symptoms, consult your doctor, who may suggest a sleep study and refer you to a sleep medicine specialist. The study will measure how often you stop breathing or have too little air flowing into your lungs during sleep, and other OSA indicators.

Treating sleep apnea

If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are many ways to control and treat it. The two main devices used for treatment are: a CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which keeps the upper airway open during sleep; and a dental device, called an oral appliance or mandibular advancement device, which can reposition the jaw, bringing the tongue and soft palate forward as well, says the Canadian Lung Association.

Some people with mild sleep apnea can also improve their symptoms by losing excess weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, and sleeping on their side rather than their back.

Sleep apnea is a serious condition. But taking advantage of proven, effective treatments can make a world of difference to your quality of life and health while you’re awake and during sleep.