Sleep apnea a risk for over half of seniors: study

People may feel tired in the day if they repeatedly stop breathing at night.

Sleep apnea a risk for over half of seniors: study

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A new study suggests that 56 per cent of people aged 65 years and older have a sleep disorder in which they repeatedly stop breathing. This obstructive sleep apnea can make people feel tired and is linked to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Few tested

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that only eight per cent of those seniors at risk had actually been tested. This entails an overnight sleep study.

“If you think about your airway as being sort of a flexible tube supported by muscles, when you go to sleep at night the muscles that support the airway tend to relax,” says Dr. Christopher Li, a sleep physician at St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto.

“This flexible tube then starts to collapse.  Partial collapse of the tube causes vibrations which we hear as snoring, whereas complete collapse of the tube results in a stop in breathing or an apnea.”

Dr. Christopher Li says the elderly may have a two times greater risk of obstructive sleep apnea than middle-aged people.

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The brain needs rest

Li says it is normal for a person to have up to five apneas an hour overnight, but more than that is called obstructive sleep apnea. In cases where breathing stops, the brain will order it resume, but that takes away from the rest that the brain needs overnight.

People may be unaware they have apnea because if they are alone, they may not realize they are snoring or stopping breathing, and tiredness is often attributed to other issues. Li suggests people let their sleep partners know if they are snoring, or they stop breathing and that they not ignore feelings of fatigue. He also notes that obesity presents a higher risk for sleep apnea and that anyone with a neck circumference of over 43 cm faces increased risk.

Apnea might be reduced if one avoids sleeping on one’s back.

New treatment researched

Some of the things that may reduce the problem are to lose weight or avoid sleeping on one’s back. There is an effective treatment. CPAP is a device in which pressurized air is delivered through a flexible tube and face mask overnight. It can be uncomfortable at first and take some getting used to.

Some people benefit from using a dental appliance which can hold the jaw in the most efficient position for breathing. There is also research being done into other possible treatments such as surgical intervention, nerve stimulation.

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