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Apnea: the undiagnosed disorder that’s killing us as we sleep

Of the 54 million people in the United States thought to be living with sleep apnea, it is estimated that about 80% do not have a formal diagnosis. This means millions of Americans are deprived of oxygen each night without even knowing it.

If left untreated, prolonged sleep apnea can lead to irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart attack, stroke and sudden death.

Sleep apnea happens when a person lies down to sleep and the muscles in the throat relax. This may lead to a shift in the tongue and soft palate, causing the airway to narrow so much that it briefly closes off completely. This disrupts breathing and may reduce the level of oxygen in the blood.

Drops in oxygen levels alert the brain that something isn’t working as it should. As a result, causes the heart rate to spike in an effort to compensate and deliver more oxygen to the body’s tissues.  As oxygen level continues to drop, the sleeper wakes themself up, tensing the muscles of the airway to re-establish breathing.

In addition to the harmful side effects mentioned above, a lack of sleep can also impair attention and short-term memory, not to mention that groggy, unfocused feeling that can leave us yawning at work or even nodding off behind the wheel the next day.

Twenty years of studying sleep

A recent sleep study followed 400 men and women between the ages of 40-65 over a period of 20 years. The purpose of this study was to examine the long-term effects that sleep apnea had on health. Specifically, they sought to examine possible connections between sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer.

The follow up twenty years later showed significant conclusions. Namely, instances of disease and death for those with moderate or severe sleep apnea were far more common compared to those whose sleep apnea was either mild or non-existent. In fully adjusted models, moderate-to-severe sleep apnea was independently associated with about a fourfold increased risk of all-cause mortality, incident stroke, and cancer mortality within the group.

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Triple the risk

A separate study followed 1,500 adults over a period of 18 years who were screened for sleep apnea. Some of the subjects were found to have sleep apnea, others did not.

The study’s conclusion brought alarming results. 12% of those who had sleep apnea had died, compared with 4% of those who did not test for sleep apnea—a stunning threefold increase in deaths for those with sleep apnea.  

How do you know if you have sleep apnea?

A doctor who specializes in sleep disorders will be able to diagnose you for sure, but one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea is that you simply feel tired more often than not.

Additionally, bed partners can be valuable resources in providing their own perspective. If the person who shares your bed reports that you snore exceptionally loudly and sometimes stop breathing—or gasp for breath—you could have sleep apnea. Being a loud snorer is not equivocal to having sleep apnea, but investigating further can be one the best ways to not only improve the quality of your sleep but quite possibly save your life.

Although they provide a wealth of information, overnight stays in sleep labs are exceedingly expensive. Monitoring physiological sleep parameters like heart rate and stopped breathing events on a device like the Beddr SleepTuner (rather than popular fitness trackers, which are primarily designed to track movement) can also help you assess your body’s behavior while you sleep and improve your sleep hygiene.

What can I do?

As discussed above, long-term, pathological sleep apnea has been linked to a myriad of health issues and chronic conditions. Speaking with a sleep specialist or a board-certified doctor who is knowledgeable in sleep disorders is the first step in learning more about how sleep apnea specifically affects you, as well as the wide array of treatments available.

Treatment for sleep apnea in the field of sleep medicine varies, and usually includes  suggestions for lifestyle changes such as weight loss, positional therapy (like sleeping on your side), cutting back on alcohol in the evenings, and  wearing special devices at night that keep your airway open (such as CPAP and oral sleep apnea appliances).

One of the healthiest, most helpful first steps you can take when it comes to your sleep health is learning the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. With a little education, help from a medical professional, and a desire to take control of your sleep health, you’ll be on your way to resting easier.

Tom Goff is the Co-founder and CTO of Beddr. Prior to Beddr, he was a founding member of numerous health tech and medical device startups including Shockwave Medical and Kerberos Proximal Solutions and holds over 40 patents. Tom studied Product Design at Stanford University and is an active StartX alumni mentor.

October 11, 2018