By now, you’ve almost certainly either heard about sleep apnea or know someone who is being treated for it. Sleep apnea involves repetitive episodes of complete or near-complete interruption of breathing during sleep. This can happen as many as 100 times per hour and causes a drop in the blood oxygen level that lasts 10 seconds or more at a time, which can have dangerous short- and long-term effects. Overweight men are particularly susceptible to sleep apnea. It’s also a common problem for older adults, affecting about 24 percent of all seniors who live on their own and up to 42 percent of those who live in a nursing or assisted-living facility. With those numbers, you might assume that sleep apnea primarily is a concern for seniors, but you would be mistaken. Sleep apnea also can affect women, children and young adults.
Blount Memorial board-certified family nurse practitioner Claudia Gammon says sleep apnea often can be misread when it occurs in children. “In general, signs of sleep apnea can include loud snoring, daytime sleepiness, morning headaches and dry mouth upon awakening,” Gammon said. “With children, however, sleep-disordered breathing can manifest as hyperactivity, as opposed to the daytime sleepiness we often see in older adults. Other, more-subtle sleep apnea signs can be missed in young female patients, as well, where sleep apnea-related problems can manifest as anxiety, poor concentration, memory problems, low libido and general irritability,” she explained. “For instance, a 27-year-old woman who comes to a sleep clinic complaining of feeling tired and sleepy in the daytime may have had these symptoms since childhood. She can be normal weight, appear healthy overall and may have never been told she snores or stops breathing at night. However, when we perform a sleep study, we find that she has a decreased respiratory airflow with short awakenings in the brain or arousals from sleep,” she said. “This becomes a mild sleep apnea diagnosis,” she said.
Sometimes, how we’re put together can determine whether we will experience sleep apnea. “Although being overweight does put a person at a higher risk for sleep apnea, we have seen many adult patients who are thin, but just happen to have certain anatomical characteristics that make them more susceptible,” Gammon said. “For instance, a back-sitting jaw or a thicker tongue both can lead to sleep apnea issues. With these patients, sleep apnea may not be properly diagnosed by a primary care provider unless thorough questioning and a detailed exam are performed,” she explained.
“It is important to know that, like many health problems, sleep apnea is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ disorder,” Gammon said. “Patients need to remember to be their own advocate if they suspect they may have a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea, if left untreated, can increase the risk of multiple medical problems, including stroke, heart attacks and irregular heart rhythms. It also can lead to weight gain and problems controlling diabetes,” she explained. “Sleep apnea is absolutely manageable, and with the right treatment, patients can see improvements in their overall quality of life,” she added.
The Blount Memorial Sleep Health Center features board-certified sleep specialists, as well as the comprehensive support services of Blount Memorial Hospital. The Sleep Health Center is an accredited member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), and also offers a free CPAP education clinic. For more information or to schedule an initial appointment, call the Sleep Health Center at 865-982-4637.