5 Surprising Facts About Sleep Apnea

Woman trying to sleep

Tossing, turning, snoring and waking up in a fog might mean more than just a bad night’s sleep, especially if they happen on a regular basis.

For many, sleep apnea is to blame for these symptoms. With sleep apnea, your breathing is disrupted while you are asleep. The results range from short-term sleepiness to long-term risks for diseases. You’d be surprised by how common this condition is — and how it can affect you.

1. Many people have sleep apnea but don’t know it

Sleep apnea is more common than you think because it often goes undiagnosed, says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center. That’s particularly true for the most common form, obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when your airway gets blocked or constricted while you sleep. Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says at least 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men are affected, and those figures are based on older studies done when obesity rates were not as high as they are today. But out of all those people getting unsatisfying sleep, as many as 80 percent go undiagnosed.

2. It’s not just for overweight men who snore

The stereotype of a sleep apnea patient is an overweight or obese man who snores. While there’s some truth there — obesity is a major risk factor, and it does affect more men in general — the stereotype falls apart with age. “Most people don’t know this,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says, “but after menopausal age, women are as likely to be affected as men.”

The stereotype of a sleep apnea patient is an overweight or obese man who snores. While there’s some truth there, the stereotype falls apart with age.

3. It may seem like depression, fatigue or something else

Why is sleep apnea so often overlooked? Because its symptoms are so broad. Beyond sleep disruptions and other bedtime symptoms, you may also have depression, fatigue, trouble concentrating, a dry mouth and sore throat, or any number of other symptoms.

“We have patients diagnosed with depression, but something is just not quite right,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says, as an example. “They don’t respond to treatment for depression, but the depression improves when sleep apnea is diagnosed and treated.”

4. Sleep apnea can lead to serious complications

Sleep apnea disrupts more than just your good night’s sleep and hard day’s work. Over time, it’s a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other serious conditions. If you have symptoms — or a spouse or partner notices that you repeatedly stop breathing at night — ask your doctor about having an overnight sleep study. Such studies are the only way to accurately diagnose sleep apnea, especially since so many symptoms overlap with other conditions.

5. You can do something about it

There are ways to deal with sleep apnea. Weight loss can help, since obesity is a risk factor. So can avoiding alcohol and other sedatives and making a change in sleep habits. “For some people, simply avoiding sleeping on the back makes a difference,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.

But simple changes won’t work for many people, which is why PAP (positive airway pressure) therapy — a mask that promotes airflow during sleep — is such a popular treatment. If your doctor diagnoses sleep apnea and prescribes PAP therapy, be prepared to commit to the treatment.

“People need to use it every night to get the benefit from it,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “It’s not a quick fix; it’s a lifestyle change.”