Updated: July 20, 2021

Sleep Apnea (What it is, its risk factors, its health impacts, and how it can be treated)

Written by Sumit Pandey

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is an interruption in breathing during sleep caused by a blockage of the airway. 

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It occurs when the soft tissues in a person’s throat relax during sleep, causing the airway to collapse or become blocked. This leads to snoring and pauses in breathing that can last from a few seconds to minutes. 

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The pauses can lead to dangerous consequences such as hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke, and even sudden death.

Health Impact

Sleep apnea is often undiagnosed and untreated because the symptoms are subtle and often go unnoticed. In many cases, people who have sleep apnea do not realize they have it until they visit their physician for other health reasons. 

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Sleep apnea can also have a negative impact on relationships. Because of fatigue, irritability, and mood swings, people with sleep apnea may have trouble at work and home. Children with sleep apnea may have difficulty concentrating at school.

Sleep Apnea Risk Factors

There are certain risk factors associated with developing sleep apnea. These include:

Obesity (being overweight) – 

Excess weight on the upper body causes fat to accumulate around the neck. This extra fat tissue narrows the airway and interferes with breathing while sleeping.

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Sex – 

Men are more likely than women to develop sleep apnea, although women are more likely to be obese and experience weight-related sleep apnea.

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Age – 

Although anyone can develop sleep apnea, it is most common in middle-aged men and older adults (over 65). These two groups also tend to be more obese than younger people. However, children as young as four years old can also develop sleep apnea related to obesity or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

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Family History – 

Sleep apnea is more common in people who have family members who also have it or other disorders that interfere with breathing while sleeping (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). People with heart disease or type 2 diabetes also have an increased risk of developing sleep apnea.

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Certain Medical Conditions – 

Some medical conditions increase the risk for developing sleep apnea including heart failure; kidney disease; thyroid problems; neuromuscular disorders; neurological disorders such as stroke; brain tumor; and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

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There may be other medical conditions that increase the risk of developing sleep apnea that are not yet known because there has been little research into this area so far. 

Insomnia – 

People who wake up frequently throughout the night but still feel tired when they get up may be at higher risk for developing sleep apnea due to high levels of daytime fatigue or stress on the heart from frequent arousals throughout the night that do not allow full recovery between arousals during normal sleep periods.

How can it be treated?

Obesity

Losing weight is the most effective way to treat sleep apnea. Many people with sleep apnea are not aware that they are overweight or obese. 

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It is important to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and advice. Your doctor can also refer you to a dietitian and/or offer suggestions for behavior modification programs.

Airway Repositioning/Sleeping Position Change

If you have mild sleep apnea, the simplest solution is to change the position in which you sleep. Some people find it helpful to elevate the head of their bed. 

Others find that sleeping on their side instead of their back helps reduce their symptoms. If these changes do not work, a doctor may prescribe a special device for use during sleep that gently holds the upper airway open for breathing.

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Medications

Many different types of medications can help with sleep apnea including:

Central nervous system depressants (such as benzodiazepines) – 

These medications work by slowing down brain activity during sleep. They should be used only in certain cases because they can be habit forming. It is important to discuss all potential risks and benefits with your doctor before taking any medication for sleep apnea.

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Antidepressants (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – 

Studies show that some antidepressants may reduce symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea although they are more likely to work in patients with central sleep apnea than those with obstructive sleep apnea. 

However, antidepressants may have many side effects so it is important to discuss all potential risks and benefits with your doctor before taking any medication for sleep apnea.

Conclusion

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is an interruption in breathing during sleep caused by a blockage of the airway. 

Sleep apnea can have a negative impact on relationships because of fatigue, irritability, and mood swings. 

Children with sleep apnea may have difficulty concentrating at school. The risk factors for developing sleep apnea include obesity, family history, and certain medical conditions. Losing weight is the most effective way to treat sleep apnea. 

Many people with sleep apnea are not aware that they are overweight or obese. Your doctor can also offer suggestions for behavior modification programs. 

If losing weight does not work, your doctor may prescribe a special device for use during sleep that gently holds the upper airway open for breathing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Sleep apnea is a sleep breathing disorder that disrupts sleep and causes daytime sleepiness.

  • Sleep apnea is the most common sleep disorder, affecting more than 18 million Americans.

  • Sleep apnea affects roughly 80 percent of men and 50 percent of women, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

  • Sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway. This blockage can be caused by tissues surrounding the airway, tongue, or other things.

  • No. About 20 percent of people with sleep apnea are considered obese, but the disorder can also affect non-obese individuals.

  • Sleep apnea is familial; it runs in families. However, that does not mean that every child of a parent with sleep apnea will develop the disorder.

  • Sleep apnea is a common problem in children in the United States. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it affects 2 to 4 percent of people under 18.

  • Yes. Your child's doctor may recommend that your child use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine helps keep the airway open during sleep.

  • There is a strong relationship between stroke and sleep apnea. People with obstructive sleep apnea are 3 to 4 times more likely to have a stroke.

  • People with obstructive sleep apnea are 4 times more likely to have heart disease. They are also at higher risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and abnormal cholesterol levels.

Written by Sumit Pandey

My name is Sumit Kumar Pandey and I’m a content writer and blogger who specializes in writing about technology, web design, and online marketing. After working as a research scholar in the engineering field for many years, I’m now a full-time content writer, helping people get more exposure and generate more leads for their businesses.

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