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What are the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea?

One of the most common signs of sleep apnea is also one of the easiest to recognize by patients or partners of patients, loud and chronic snoring.  This loud and chronic snoring occurs when the brain senses one of the pauses in breathing and takes action to restore breathing by forcing air into the lungs.  In addition to the loud and chronic snoring, a patient may also experience choking or gasping sensations.  These symptoms also occur during the brain’s attempts at restoring normal breathing.  However, it is important to note that not every patient with sleep apnea snores loudly and/or chronically and some patients with sleep apnea do not snore at all!

Another common sign of sleep apnea is daytime sleepiness or fatigue.  Sleep apnea prevents the body from receiving the amount of deep, restorative sleep that it needs due to the interruptions in breathing.  A person will often experience sleepiness during the day or while driving.

Others signs and symptoms of sleep apnea may include:

  • Morning headaches
  • Memory or learning problems and not being able to concentrate
  • Feeling irritable, depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes
  • Urination at night
  • A dry throat when you wake up

Who is at risk for developing sleep apnea?

What may be the most important part for seniors to recognize is the fact sleep apnea becomes more common as you get older.  In fact, 1 out of 10 people over the age of 65 has sleep apnea.  Women are much more likely to develop sleep apnea after menopause2.

Common risk factors for developing sleep apnea include:

  • Age – Sleep apnea is much more common in the elderly (1 out of 10), especially post-menopausal women.  This may be due to the brain’s decreased ability to send the signals to stiffen the throat muscles while sleeping, increasing the likelihood of an airway collapse and sleep apnea.
  • Obesity– More than half of all patients with sleep apnea are overweight.  Two criteria are used in identifying obesity-related risk factors and sleep apnea.  These two criteria are listed below:
    • Neck Size – ≥17 inches for men and ≥16 inches for women
    • Body Weight– Actual body weight is > 120% of a patient’s ideal body weight
  • Ethnicity – African-Americans, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders are more likely to develop sleep apnea than Caucasians.
  • Family History – If someone in your family has developed sleep apnea, you are at greater risk for developing it.
  • High Blood Pressure – Goal blood pressures of < 140/90 or < 130/80 for patients with diabetes may decrease the chances of developing sleep apnea.
  • Smoking – Smoking causes airway dryness and inflammation to increase the risk for developing sleep apnea.
  • Structural Problems – People with smaller airways due to smaller-than-normal chins and jaws, a receding lower jaw or overbite, or enlarged tongues may lead to sleep apnea.
  • Drug Use – People that consume moderate-to-heavy amounts of alcohol or who take benzodiazepine (Xanax, Valium, etc.) or hypnotic drugs (Ambien, Sonata, etc.) are at a greater risk for developing sleep apnea.