Sleep problems are all too common among older adults. Insomnia is frequently cited. It can have a variety of causes, such as a sedentary lifestyle and medication side effects. Another sleep problem that sometimes goes undiagnosed is sleep apnea. This condition can have serious side effects.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea is defined as “a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep.” While there are several types, the most common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA occurs “when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe.” Over time, it can result in heart disease, memory problems, stroke, depression, and high blood pressure. Obstructive sleep apnea can also cause chronic sleep deprivation that puts a person at higher risk for accidents and injuries.
Evidence shows the presence of OSA among older adults is significant. The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, conducted from 2007 to 2010, involved 1,520 participants. It found moderate to severe sleep-disordered breathing among seventeen percent of men aged fifty to seventy and nine percent among their female peers.
There are a variety of factors that increase the risk for OSA:
- Large tongue or tonsils
- Small upper airway
- Large neck circumference
- Alcohol use
- Being over the age of forty
- Large overbite
Some ethnic groups also seem to develop OSA more often than others, including African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.
Signs a Senior Has Sleep Apnea
If you or a senior loved one is experiencing daytime drowsiness, it’s essential to know it is a classic sign of sleep apnea. Other symptoms of OSA are:
- Chronic snoring
- Waking frequently during the night
- Irritability and mood swings
- Memory loss
- Sadness or depression
- Difficulty concentrating
These symptoms should be shared with a physician for further testing.
Diagnosing and Treating OSA
Diagnosing OSA usually means conducting a sleep study. Some studies require an overnight stay at a sleep clinic, while others require the patient to wear a monitor at home. Whatever the method, the test will monitor eye movement, sleep state, muscle movement, heart rate, respiration, airflow, and blood oxygen level.
Sleep studies allow physicians to not only detect the presence of OSA, but also identify its severity. That helps determine treatment protocols. For some patients, a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) will be necessary. These masks are worn while the person is sleeping to blow air into their airway. Others may require a dental appliance or surgery.
For those with mild OSA, lifestyle changes may cure the condition or reduce symptoms. Maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol can help.
Diet and Sleep Disorders
If testing shows your sleep issues aren’t related to sleep apnea or a medication side effect, another cause to consider is diet. Research shows that nutrition can play a role in both quality and quantity of sleep.