About 12 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). There are countless numbers of people who have this disorder and don’t know it. Apneas are defined as cessations in breathing which usually last between 10 and 30 seconds.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is caused by a blockage of the airway which is usually caused by the relaxation of the soft tissues in the back of the throat-they collapse-during sleep. This is also the cause of snoring. There is a less common form of sleep apnea: Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). In this case, the soft tissues do not block the airway. Instead, the brain fails to signal the respiratory and diaphragm muscles. These muscles are under the control of the Respiratory Control Center (RCs), which is located in the medulla oblongata and pons in the brainstem.
Sleep apnea is a potentially fatal disorder. Some of the related health issues are: changes in neurocognitive function because of Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS), decreased attention span and an inability to concentrate and focus on stimuli, decreased vigilance or ability to remain alert. There may also be problems with both short term and long term memory, which can affect something called, Executive Function (EF). EF is defined as the general ability to control one’s cognitive processes, such as: volition (decision making), planning, purposeful action and monitoring effective performance.
The more obvious, or bodily, problems that untreated sleep apnea can cause or exacerbate, are: high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats or heart attacks, diabetes, depression, Adult Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), headaches and hypersomnia or, Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). And, heart failure can result in death during sleep. This was a contributing factor to the death in 2016 of Princess Leia, known in real life as, Carrie Fisher. She was only 60, which is way too young.
There are many myths associated with this disorder. Many people think that only elderly people can have sleep apnea. This is not true; children can have it. As many as one in ten children can have sleep apnea. However, it is true that most sufferers are 40 years of age or older. Alcohol will not stop apneas. Alcohol will make one sleepy but, it will interfere with the brain’s ability to give one good sleep. Drinking alcohol before bed is never a good idea. In fact, the alcohol will relax the throat muscles more than normal which will make snoring and, possibly, the blockage worse.
Those who often wake with a sore or dry throat, snore loudly, wake gasping for air or choking, easily fall asleep at work, school or worse, while driving, experience restless sleep, forgetfulness, mood changes, decreased interest in sex, wake often during the night or have insomnia may have sleep apnea.
Some risk factors for this disorder are: being male overweight or over 40, having a thick neck (17 inches or more for males and 16 or more for females, large tonsils or tongue, small jawbones, family history of sleep apnea, nasal obstruction due to deviated septum, allergies or sinus problems.
Surgery may work for some sufferers but, the most common treatment is to use a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This contraption has a hose attached to a mask which fits over the nose or nose and mouth and blows pressurized air into the wearer’s lungs.
Insurance will usually cover the cost of renting or buying a CPAP machine but, if that is not an option the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) or the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) may be able to help find an affordable machine. They can be reached at asaasleepapnea.org and are located at 641 S. Street NW 3rd Floor Washington DC 20001-5196. Their phone number is 888-293-3650.
The gentle flow of the combined waters of the Gulf of Mexico and The Atlantic Ocean under the pier near The Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. I took this photo in June 2005.