Overview of Sleep Apnea and Your Senior Mother or Father
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when breathing is interrupted during sleep. It can cause a person to stop breathing for 10 seconds or more and can happen multiple times throughout the night. People with untreated sleep apnea often experience daytime fatigue, memory problems, moodiness, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Two Main Types of Sleep Apnea
There are two main types of sleep apnea: Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). OSA is caused by a blockage of the upper airway, which prevents air from entering the lungs. Abnormalities cause CSA in the brain signals that control breathing.
Treatment for Sleep Apnea
Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the severity of the condition and individual factors, such as age, lifestyle, medical history, and overall health. Common treatments include lifestyle changes like losing weight and quitting smoking, oral appliances to keep the upper airway open while sleeping, positive airway pressure machines (CPAP), oxygen therapy, surgery to widen the airway or remove tissue blocking it, and even vocal-cord injection therapy.
Lifestyle Changes to Address Mild Cases of Sleep Apnea
Lifestyle changes may help alleviate mild cases of sleep apnea by improving overall health, eliminating snoring, and increasing airflow through the nose and throat during sleep. Weight loss can reduce fat deposits around your neck that narrow your throat when lying down. Quitting smoking helps reduce inflammation in your nasal passages, which can worsen snoring.
Medical Appliances to Address Sleep Apnea
Mouthpieces or oral appliances designed to pull your lower jaw forward support your jaw muscles during sleep to keep your airways open while you rest. These devices are most effective if they fit properly, so they don’t cause irritation or soreness in your mouth or jaw joint area. CPAP machines provide a steady stream of pressurized air through a mask worn over the nose while sleeping to keep airways open. Oxygen therapy involves delivering oxygen directly into the lungs through tubing connected to a mask or nasal cannula worn during sleep to improve oxygen levels in the bloodstream.
Sleep Apnea and Surgery
For those who don’t respond well to lifestyle modifications or other treatments, surgery may be necessary for more severe cases of OSA or CSA to widen blocked areas of their throats or remove excess tissue blocking their airways during sleep. Vocal-cord injection therapy involves injecting collagen directly into vocal cords which helps them remain open longer during swallowing, allowing more airflow into their throats at night when sleeping. This procedure has been successfully used for treating people with moderate-to-severe forms of OSA who do not respond well to other treatments such as mouthpieces or CPAP machines.
Signs of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea affects millions of seniors in the United States, and it can be difficult for loved ones to detect. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, it can lead to serious complications, such as high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression. Seven more commonplace signs could indicate your senior parent may have sleep apnea:
- Snoring: Loud snoring is often the first warning sign of sleep apnea. If your parent’s snoring is especially loud or disruptive, it could be a sign that they need further medical evaluation.
- Choking or gasping during sleep: Another symptom of snoring is choking or gasping, which can cause your parent to wake up briefly before falling back asleep again.
- Excessive daytime fatigue: If your parent feels excessively tired even after having had adequate rest at night, this could be another indication of sleep apnea that should be taken seriously and evaluated by a doctor.
- Waking up with headaches: Waking up with frequent headaches can also be a sign of sleep apnea because the airway has been repeatedly blocked while they are sleeping, resulting in oxygen deprivation and headaches when they wake up in the morning.
- Poor concentration during the day: Poor concentration or cognitive impairment during the day is another common symptom of sleep apnea due to oxygen deprivation during nighttime hours, affecting brain function and attention span throughout the day.
- Irritability or mood swings: Difficulty sleeping due to lack of air supply can also result in irritability or mood swings throughout the day due to fatigue and poor concentration levels caused by lack of quality rest at night time hours.
- Changes in heart rate rotation: Sleep apnea can also cause changes in heart rate rotations which may require more detailed testing, including an electrocardiogram (EKG) or other tests ordered by a physician if needed depending on the severity of symptoms observed from the patient’s history assessment.
Consequences of Sleep Apnea for a Senior
One of the primary consequences of having OSA is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). People with untreated OSA may be more likely to suffer from EDS as their body continues to try to make up for lost sleep hours due to repeated awakening episodes throughout the night. Other symptoms of OSA include snoring loudly, which disrupts both your sleep and your bed partner’s; waking up gasping or choking; sweating excessively during sleep; morning headaches; memory or learning problems; difficulty concentrating; mood swings; depression or irritability; dry mouth or sore throat upon waking up; restless legs syndrome (RLS); and an increased risk for motor vehicle accidents due to falling asleep while driving.
Untreated OSA can also lead to long-term complications, such as high blood pressure, heart attack or failure, stroke, diabetes, depression/anxiety disorders, metabolic syndromes, liver dysfunction, weight gain, and obesity-related diseases, like fatty liver disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Poor quality sleep can also affect other aspects of life, such as work performance or relationships with family members or friends.
Studies have also shown that people with untreated OSA are three times more likely to die prematurely than those without it due to cardiovascular issues caused by chronic low oxygen levels during periods of apnea. Therefore, people who suspect they may have OSA must consult their physician and consider treatment options.