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Being up all night with a newborn baby has its challenges, but so does sleep apnea. Getting a good night’s sleep becomes increasingly harder the older one gets, and is quite common among the elderly population.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that happens when someone’s breathing is interrupted multiple times during the night, called lapses. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times, causing the brain and the rest of the body to not receive enough oxygen.
The National Sleep Foundation estimates that roughly 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Although sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, those at a higher risk are male, overweight, and over age 40.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea:

1. Obstructive

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea, particularly among the elderly. It occurs when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the upper airway during sleep, causing people to wake up several times (up to hundreds of times) each night. The blockage occurs because as people fall into a deep slumber, the muscles in the throat relax, allowing fatty tissue in your throat or tongue to fall back into the airways and reduce or block blood flow to the brain. Because people lose muscle tone as they age, this is very common with older individuals.   

2. Central

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) happens when the brain is unable to communicate with the rest of your body. The brain sends signals to the muscles controlling your breathing, and if that signal isn’t reached, it causes one to stop breathing. This lack of communication from the brain is caused by a dysfunction in the central nervous system or the heart.
CSA can be brought on by multiple things: being overweight, heart failure, Parkinson’s Disease, taking certain medications, or as a result of certain medical conditions affecting your cognition.  

3. Mixed

Mixed is a combination of both Obstructive and Central.

Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

Lack of sleep can be very serious. When oxygen fails to get to the brain and the rest of the body, it can have several damaging effects, including death. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reported that seniors with sleep apnea, and those struggling with excessive daytime sleepiness, were more than twice as likely to die from it. If left untreated, there are several other serious health risks including:

  • Stroke or transient ischemic attacks
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Heartburn and reflux
  • Diabetes
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Concentration and memory problems (dementia)
  • Depression
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Heart and blood pressure problems
  • Liver issues
  • Surgery complications
  • Medication complications

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

So how do you know if you, or your loved one, have sleep apnea? The signs and symptoms can differ, and often the symptoms of OSA and CSA may even overlap making it difficult to determine what type of sleep apnea you have. However, most seniors will experience the following:

  • Depression and other emotional issues
  • Morning headaches (caused from a lack of oxygen to the brain)
  • Restless sleep
  • Loud and chronic snoring
  • Excessive daytime fatigue
  • Snorting/gasping for breath (caused by breathing lapses)
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Poor concentration
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
  • Rapid eye movement

Treatment Options

Before you begin to panic, you should know that while many people suffer from sleep apnea, there are also many who are able to find some type of relief through a variety of treatment options.

The most common treatment for OSA is Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) Therapy, which can be in one of three forms: CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), BiPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure), and APAP (Automatic Positive Airway Pressure). These provide patients with a stream of compressed air while they sleep to support the airway.
Other treatment options include:

  • MADs (Mandibular advancement devices)
  • Tongue-retaining mouthpieces
  • Upper airway and/or nasal surgery
  • Pillows designed for sleep apnea sufferers
  • UPPP (Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) procedure
  • MMA (Maxillomandibular Advancement)
  • Adenotonsillectomy

If you are looking for another alternative, try these tips suggested by the National Sleep Foundation: lose weight if you are overweight, avoid alcohol consumption, quit smoking, and sleep on your sides. 

Remember that if you have any concerns, it is best to consult with your doctor to find the best treatment option available. Because certain medications can have side effects such as hindering sleep, it is important to talk with your doctor about your medications and sleep habits. Together, you can help improve your sleep, or the sleep of your loved one, again and enjoy life.
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