Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The “apnea” in sleep apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts at least ten seconds. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe. Another form of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more common than central sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea, or simply sleep apnea, can cause fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels. For people with sleep apnea, the combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation may lead to hypertension, heart disease and mood and memory problems. Sleep apnea also increases the risk of drowsy driving. Sleep apnea can be life-threatening and you should consult your doctor immediately if you feel you may suffer from it.
More than 18 million American adults have sleep apnea. It is very difficult at present to estimate the prevalence of childhood OSA because of widely varying monitoring techniques, but a minimum prevalence of 2 to 3% is likely, with prevalence as high as 10 to 20% in habitually snoring children. OSA occurs in all age groups and both sexes, but there are a number of factors that increase risk, including having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula), being overweight, having a recessed chin, small jaw or a large overbite, a large neck size (17 inches or greater in a man, or 16 inches or greater in a woman), smoking and alcohol use, being age 40 or older, and ethnicity (African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders and Hispanics). Also, OSA seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.
Chronic snoring is a strong indicator of sleep apnea and should be evaluated by a health professional. Since people with sleep apnea tend to be sleep deprived, they may suffer from sleeplessness and a wide range of other symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties, and falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving. Left untreated, symptoms of sleep apnea can include disturbed sleep, excessive sleepiness during the day, high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke or depression.
In the 2005 Sleep in America poll, 8% of respondents experienced or had been observed having pauses in their breathing during sleep at least three nights per week. Adults in the poll were also given the Berlin questionnaire, a standardized test assessing risk for sleep apnea. Based on the quetionnaire, 26% of all poll respondents were at risk. Of those at risk, 70% said that they snored, slept on average 6.4 hours/weeknight (compared to overall mean of 6.8 hours); 66% were experiencing daytime sleepiness at least 3 days per week and over half (58%) were obese. Of adults in this population who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure or depression, almost half were also at risk for sleep apnea. 33% of those who drink 4 or more caffeinated beverages daily are designated at risk for sleep apnea.