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To Your Health: Sleep apnea may lead to a host of health problems

I snore. My partner snores. I’m sure half of my friends, male and female, snore each night as they sleep. We are a snoring species. But sometimes snoring is more than a regular rumble. Sometimes loud and ragged snoring is a sign of a potentially deadly problem.

Loud irregular snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition linked to heart irregularities and stroke. Photo courtesy of Airways and Sleep Group

Sleep apnea affects an estimated 22 million people in the country, according to the New York Times. The condition is known to raise the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and Type 2 diabetes in adults. The condition is frightening: people with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly as they sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night.

There are two types of sleep apnea, obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea, which is most common, means that the upper airway in the throat is completely or partially blocked by soft tissue during sleep. This can occur many times during the night. The person goes from loud, uneven snoring to silence. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp or body jerk.

In central sleep apnea the airway is not blocked. Instead the brain doesn’t signal muscles to breathe due to a malfunction in the respiratory control center.

When you stop breathing, your heart rate drops the longer your body is deprived of oxygen. Ultimately involuntary reflexes will cause you to take a breath and partially awaken. When that happens, your heart rate accelerates quickly and blood pressure rises. Do this many times each night and over time the body will experience long-term effects. The heart walls thicken due to the increased sudden workload and become stiffer and less flexible, leading to a greater risk of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and other heart issues.

Sleep apnea also causes an overwhelming sense of fatigue in the daytime, despite a person having slept many hours each night. When the brain and body aren’t getting enough oxygen and deep sleep patterns are disturbed, sleep apnea sufferers often find they have trouble concentrating, are forgetful or are unusually irritable.

How do you know if you have sleep apnea, given that it occurs while you are asleep? Data show that more men than women suffer from the condition, as well as people over the age of 50 and those who are overweight. The number one marker for sleep apnea, however, is loud, irregular snoring.

Snoring happens when air can’t flow easily through the mouth or nose. When the air is forced through an obstructed area, soft tissues in the mouth, nose and throat move together and vibrate. The vibrations make a rattling, snorting or rumbling sound.

The first one to recognize the possibility of sleep apnea is not the person suffering from it but rather the person who can hear that individual’s snoring. If someone you know snores like a freight train, you might suggest they get a sleep evaluation.

A sleep evaluation takes place overnight in a sleep lab. A polysomnogram is conducted to track body functions, such as the electrical activity of the brain, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rate, breathing patterns, air flow, and blood oxygen levels, to gauge the severity of the sleep apnea. For some, a home sleep test can be used instead. It tracks blood oxygen levels, airflow, and bodily movement. A home sleep test isn’t as accurate as a polysomnogram but it’s cheaper and more convenient than going to a sleep lab.

If the sleep apnea is mild, simply losing weight and abstaining from alcohol at night might correct the problem. Since sleep apnea often occurs when a person is sleeping on his back, using a pillow to remain on one side or the other during the night can help as well.

But for those with more acute cases, mechanical help may be called for. A Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) machine gently forces air through the nose and mouth while a person sleeps. The air pressure is enough to prevent the upper airway tissues from collapsing during sleep, preventing the apnea from occurring.

The upshot is: don’t take loud snoring for granted. If you are an older male, perhaps a tad overweight, and drinking too much coffee each day to stay awake, think about getting a sleep evaluation. It’s a simple way to avoid a range of bad consequences.


Sleep Evaluation Centers in Maine

Central Maine Sleep Center Central Maine Medical Center 60 High St, Lewiston 795-7522 website

Northern Light Sleep Diagnostics Eastern Maine Medical Center 290 State St, Bangor, ME 04401 973-5892 Website

Maine Sleep Institute Maine Medical Center 930 Congress St, Portland 662-4535 Website

Center for Sleep Disorders Southern Maine Health Care Livewell Campus, Kennebunk 467-8520 website


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