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Sleep Apnea in Older Adults

Do you snore at night? Are you sleepy during the day? Do you have balance problems and slower cognitive function? Are you experiencing anxiety and depression? If you have any combination of these symptoms, you may be suffering from sleep disordered breathing.

Approximately 50% of older adults experience difficulty sleeping and excessive daytime sleepiness. Many might believe that it is just part of the natural aging process. However, it might be caused by sleep disordered breathing — the most common being sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea causes a person to stop breathing for a short period of time while sleeping, sometimes hundreds of times during the night and often for a minute or longer. In most cases the sleeper is unaware of these breath stoppages because they don't trigger a full awakening.

Sleep disordered breathing is more common in older than younger adults. Studies show that sleep breathing disorders affect 45%-62% adults 60 years and older, but only 4%-9% of middle aged men and women (age 30-60).

These numbers prove that you are not alone in your dilemma. The main symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing are snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness. The snoring can be extremely loud and may force bed partners to sleep in separate rooms. Daytime sleepiness causes the patient to fall asleep at inappropriate times during the day — such as while reading, watching TV, during conversations, or while driving. These symptoms may be particularly relevant to older adults, who are at an increased risk of developing such symptoms with aging.

Older adults and their caregivers should take these symptoms seriously, because sleep disturbances can have significant, serious consequences. Sleep problems are associated with increased risk of falls in the older adult, difficulty walking, difficulty seeing, and depression. Sleep disorder breathing can also be a risk factor for problems like hypertension, cardiac and pulmonary problems. Patients with this kind of sleep difficulty have also reported a poorer quality of life in general.

Lifestyle changes and/or mouthpieces are used to treat sleep apnea. Medicines typically aren't used to treat the condition.

The most common treatment for sleep disorder breathing is for the patient to wear a breathing device while sleeping that creates positive airway pressure. The continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) provides continuous air pressure through a hose connected to a nose mask. The air pressure acts as a splint to maintain the opening of the upper airway, thereby preventing the obstruction or collapse of the airway.

Should you have only mild sleep apnea, you may only need to make changes in your day-to-day activities or habits. Avoiding alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy, for they make it harder for your throat to stay open while you sleep. If you are overweight, or obese, your symptoms can also improve if you are able to lose weight. Even a little weight loss can improve your symptoms. Sleep on your side instead of your back to help keep your throat open. You can sleep with special pillows or shirts that prevent you from sleeping on your back. Keep your nasal passages open at night with nasal sprays or allergy medicines, if needed. Talk with your doctor about whether these treatments might help you. If you smoke, quit.

A version of this article appeared in the Private Health News.