Getting a good night’s rest is a vital part of maintaining good health. Sleep helps your body and mind recharge and function properly. Older adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, according to the National Institute on Aging. However, many seniors have a condition that disrupts their sleep and robs them of having a restful night.
Sleep apnea is common condition that causes breathing to stop or become very shallow. It can occur when the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep, reducing or completely stopping the flow of air. Breathing pauses that the blockage causes can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur up to 30 or more times an hour. These breathing pauses can be dangerous if they cause the oxygen level in the body to drop or disturb sleep. They can lead to snoring, gasping or loud snorting during sleep as the brain attempts to get the body to resume breathing. People with sleep apnea may not even know they have it. However, they may be experiencing symptoms of the condition such as sleepiness and irritability in the daytime. Worse, people with undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea may be at risk for more serious health problems such as high blood pressure, stroke or memory loss.
Dangerous for older people
Sleep apnea may be caused by many issues such a person’s physical structure, large tonsils, family history, heart or kidney failure or obesity. Smoking and alcohol consumption can also lead to airway and breathing problems that can cause sleep apnea. Although sleep apnea can occur at any age, the risk for developing the condition increases with age. Normal age-related changes to how the brain controls breathing as well as fatty tissue build-up in the neck and tongue could be possible causes for older adults developing sleep apnea. If left untreated, in older people, sleep apnea can lead to cognitive function decline and may even increase their risk of death. A study published in the April 1, 2011 issue of the journal SLEEP stated that sleep apnea can affect up to 20 percent of older adults. Researchers found that the risk of death for older adults with sleep apnea and who struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness was more than two times higher than that for older adults who had neither problem.
Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, there are a variety of treatments that can help manage the condition and aid in restoring the ability to get a good night’s rest. The most conservative treatment involves lifestyle changes such weight loss, quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol. Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that prevent them from sleeping on their backs or oral appliances to keep their airway open while they sleep. If conservative treatment proves ineffective, use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may be recommended. CPAP involves a face mask attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. Surgery to remove tissue and widen the airway may also be a recommended treatment. Some people may need a combination of treatments to manage the condition. Sleep apnea can take a toll on older adults’ quality of life and independence. It’s important that the condition is recognized and diagnosed as soon as possible. If you are experiencing sleep problems or symptoms such as fatigue and irritability, consult your healthcare provider for appointment.