Q. What is Sleep Apnea?
A. Sleep apnea or sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.
Many times during a typical night, Gregory, 59, stopped breathing and gasped for air, despite being asleep. Luckily for him, his wife finally got him to a doctor.
If this describes you, or a loved one, time to see whether sleep apnea is the culprit - for your heart and family's sake.
The potentially deadly, but easily treatable, sleep disorder raises your risk of a heart attack and stroke, and thus requires prompt medical attention, according to sleep experts at Loyola University Health Systems.
"Sleep apnea temporarily stops a person from breathing, possibly hundreds of times each night," said Dr. Nidhi Undevia, a professor at Loyola's medical school near Chicago and a sleep expert in the university's Center for Sleep Disorders.
As a result, oxygen levels may decrease and carbon dioxide levels may increase, cutting off the air, stressing your heart and causing your blood pressure to spike.
"Once breathing returns, you might go back to sleep but only until the throat tissues again collapse," Undevia said. "This cycle can repeat every few minutes, interrupting your sleep."
A person will be groggy and tired even if they were in bed for eight hours. A person might fall asleep while driving, watching their children or attending a business meeting.
"At the very least, it will be hard to concentrate," Undevia said.
Who gets sleep apnea?
More than 18 million Americans are like Gregory - and many don't even know it because they sleep alone or they and their mates don't know the symptoms, sleep experts said.
Although anyone can develop sleep apnea, the condition is more common among people who have:
• high blood pressure;
• large tonsils;
• nasal congestion;
• weight problems.
Men and women who have a neck circumference larger than 17 inches and 16 inches respectively are at increased risk for obstructive sleep apnea. The condition is more common in extremely overweight, middle-aged men, Loyola experts said.
Diagnosing sleep apnea requires an overnight stay in a center that specializes in such disorders so physicians can monitor your brain waves, oxygen levels, breathing, heart rate and leg movements.
Patients take a sleep apnea test - a "polysomnogram," the one Gregory took at Loyola - that physicians like Undevia then use to arrive at a conclusion.
To treat the disorder, doctors prescribed a light and compact "continuous positive airway" machine, or CPAP, which patients take home and keep on their bedside tables. Through an oxygen mask attached to the machines, they get a steady stream of pressurized air that keeps their airways open.
'Known risk factor'
But people with obstructive sleep apnea won't only disturb the sleep of their mates, but may raise their risk of cardiovascular disease, which is aggravated if they eat fatty and cholesterol-rich meals and get no exercise, Mayo Clinic researchers said in the recent Sleep journal.
The scientists believe that heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions are brought on by acute surges in high blood pressure and inadequate oxygen in the blood that occur during sleep apnea.
"Sleep apnea is a known risk factor for the development of hypertension, heart disease and stroke," said Dr. Lawrence Epstein, past-president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and instructor of at Harvard Medical School. "Chronic sleep deprivation also has been shown to change metabolic function in a way that promotes weight gain and diabetes, two risk factors for heart disease."
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Glen Edward Mitchell
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