Diagnosis: Obstructive sleep apnea, an increasingly common yet often missed or untreated condition that can result in poor quality of life, a risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even cancer, and perhaps most important of all, a threefold increased risk of often-fatal motor vehicle accidents.
Obstructive sleep apnea afflicts about 9 percent of women and 24 percent of men, most of them middle-aged or older, yet as many as 9 in 10 adults with this treatable condition remain undiagnosed, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
The condition is on the rise because the most frequent cause is obesity, which continues its unrelenting climb among American adults. Sleep apnea afflicts more than two people in five who have a body mass index of more than 30, and three in five adults with metabolic syndrome, Dr. Sigrid C. Veasey and Dr. Ilene M. Rosen wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in April.
Although sleep apnea occasionally affects slender folks who may, for example, have a small jaw or large tongue, in overweight people, excess fatty tissue in the tongue and throat can block the airway when throat muscles relax during sleep. This is most likely to happen when people sleep on their backs.
Weight loss helps but may not always correct the problem. Dr. Rosen told me of a man in his 40s who had been treated for congestive heart failure and lost 40 pounds. Still, he remained tired all the time, and his wife said he snored so loudly she had to wear earplugs at night. Then she read about sleep apnea in a magazine and insisted he visit the sleep lab, where an overnight study showed his breathing was disrupted 45 times an hour, causing his blood’s oxygen level at night to drop to 65 percent of normal.
This man’s story prompted me to ask Dr. Veasey, “What about those of us without a bed partner? How might we know if we have obstructive sleep apnea?