Dangers of Sleep Apnea


Sleep apnea typically occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat relaxes too much during sleep, partially blocking the passage and cutting off the flow of air. The result is loud snoring and labored breathing. If the passage closes entirely, no air can get through and breathing stops until the brain rouses the person enough to gasp for air. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association in Washington, D.C., some people with untreated apnea stop breathing hundreds of times during the night, often for a minute or longer. When they do fall back to sleep, it’s generally to a lighter, fragmented, less-restful stage that leaves them drowsy the next day.

The number of Americans who have sleep apnea—about 15 million—equals the number who have diabetes. And, like those with diabetes, “the majority don’t know it or aren’t being properly treated,” says Sleep Apnea Association president Rochelle Goldberg. What’s more, apnea increases your risk for developing high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and diabetes, for suffering strokes, and for having accidents during the day, she says.

People with severe sleep apnea—that means at least 15 breathing disruptions an hour—suffer a loss of motor skills, attention, and concentration that’s equal to an additional five years of aging. “Men are twice as likely as women to have sleep apnea,” says Goldberg, “because the tissues in their throats are usually larger and thus more likely to cause obstruction.” Ditto for people who are overweight. Even so, “you can be thin as a rail and still have the airway characteristics that cause apnea,” says Goldberg.

People with sleep apnea are more likely to snore … and to snore loudly. “If someone snores and wonders whether they have sleep apnea, they should answer a few questions,” says Goldberg.

• If the snoring is pretty much every night, is there any irregular breathing or pauses between the snores?
• Do you wake with some frequency at night, even if just to go to the bathroom?
• Do you still feel tired the next day after what seemed like a good night’s sleep?
• Do you have trouble concentrating and working through simple tasks during the day?
• Do you have headaches when you wake up?

“The most effective treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure,” says Goldberg. It’s a machine with a mask that attaches over the face and keeps the air passage open by forcing air through the nose and mouth throughout the night. Not everyone can tolerate it. Dental appliances and surgery work about half the time, while drugs and supplements don’t work at all, says Goldberg.       

Copyright 2005 CSPI. Reprinted with permission from Nutrition Action Healthletter, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C.20009-5728.