Obstructive sleep apnea is not a condition to take lying down. Characterized by frequent stopping of breathing during sleep (from a few seconds to more than a minute)—sometimes followed by choking and gasping to recover—it can lead to daytime fatigue, which affects both mental and physical functioning. It’s known to cause hypertension and is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, osteoporosis and increased mortality. Here’s a look at three recent studies.
Though sleep apnea is typically regarded as mostly a man’s problem, a Swedish study published in the European Respiratory Journal found unexpectedly high rates in women. About 50 percent of 400 women, ages 20 to 70, who underwent a sleep exam, were diagnosed with some degree of apnea. One in seven women ages 55 to 70 had severe apnea. Not surprisingly, it was most common in obese women, because excess weight is a contributing factor. Though these numbers are much higher than previously reported and may overstate the problem, they offer good reason for women to wake up to the fact that they, too, are at risk.
Sleep apnea may affect women’s health even more than men’s, suggests a study from UCLA, published in the journal Sleep. Women with apnea had more damage in parts of their brain associated with mood and decision-making, as shown by alterations in white matter on MRIs. They were also more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. The study doesn’t prove that apnea caused these findings, however. It’s possible, instead, that brain changes lead to both altered sleep and mood.
Treating apnea improved blood pressure in men with hypertension, in a large study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. The men, newly diagnosed with the condition, were prescribed standard apnea treatment, usually a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. After 3 to 12 months of treatment, systolic blood pressure (the upper number) dropped 7 points, and diastolic pressure (lower number), 3 points.
Sound sleep advice
If you suspect you have sleep apnea, get medical help. You may be referred to a sleep disorders center, where your sleep patterns can be observed and recorded overnight. Fortunately, there are effective treatments, including practical steps like losing weight and limiting alcohol. A custom-made mouth device that pulls the tongue and jaw forward may also help. But the gold standard is a CPAP machine, which pumps air through a mask to keep nasal airways open.