“Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders in America,” says Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Thankfully we have numerous tools to treat sleep apnea, which, once under control, can make a big difference not just in terms of how a person feels in the morning, but in terms of their overall heath.”
Health Matters spoke with Dr. Barone to learn more about sleep apnea, its signs, treatments, and why getting enough quality sleep is important for our health and well-being.
What is sleep apnea?
Dr. Barone: Sleep apnea is when a person either stops breathing or has shallow breathing when they sleep. The problem can be mild to severe, based on how often your lungs don’t get enough air. For adults, mild sleep apnea means that breathing stops 5 to 15 times an hour. Moderate sleep apnea means breathing stops 15 to 30 times an hour. And with severe sleep apnea, breathing stops 30 or more times an hour. Each of these stoppages is, by definition, at least 10 seconds in length.
Is all sleep apnea the same?
There are two main types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type and most often occurs because your airways are blocked or partially blocked. When you sleep, your muscles become relaxed. In some people, this can include the muscles that keep your throat open or your tongue from falling to the back of your throat, blocking your airways. Central sleep apnea, which happens when the brain has trouble controlling breathing, is less common.
What are key signs someone might have sleep apnea?
Outside of the classic example of someone waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air and snoring, a person with undiagnosed sleep apnea is likely to notice that they can’t focus as well during the day, they’re tired, they get headaches and possibly become irritable. They might wake up with a dry mouth and have constant sore throats that can’t be explained by something else.
What risk factors can increase the chance of someone developing sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea can occur at any age, but the risk increases as people get older. Obesity can increase the risk, as can habits like smoking and drinking — alcohol can relax your throat muscles during sleep. Sleep apnea is also associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. So if someone has had a stroke or if they have diabetes and they snore, they should be tested for sleep apnea.
How is someone tested for sleep apnea?
It will usually start with a home test. The patient will get a pulse oximeter and some sort of an airflow detector that they will place in their nose to see how well the air is flowing in and out. Together these will monitor respiratory effort and oxygen levels. These tools will let us know if the person is trying to breathe but there’s no air coming in, which then leads to a drop in oxygen. If those tests are inconclusive, we might set up an overnight sleep study in a facility with more sensitive equipment.