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Sleep Apnea in the Elderly

Worried senior woman relaxing on bed and pill boxes kept on a side table in bedroom

Do you or a loved suffer from lethargy and feelings of restlessness? A busy lifestyle is enough to make anyone feel sluggish and tired at the end of the day, but an excessive loss of energy could indicate an underlying health issue. One medical condition that often goes unnoticed is sleep apnea.

The name for this chronic disorder comes from the Greek word “apneas,” which means “without breath.” Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing multiple times throughout the night. According to the National Institutes of Health, these lapses in breath can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Those afflicted resume breathing after snorting loudly or making a choking sound in their sleep.

Upon waking the next morning, the patient still feels tired, despite thinking they got a good night’s rest. In severe cases of sleep apnea, pauses in breathing may occur as many as 30 times an hour. Under the circumstances, this could mean the equivalent of 4 hours of sleep vs. the recommended 6-7 for the elderly.

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Elderly Sleep Apnea: Signs and Risks

A sleep study is the only way to verify that a patient has sleep apnea, so making your doctor aware of the symptoms early on is a good idea. A study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine indicates thatĀ sleep apnea impacts nearly 20% of all older adults. In the vast majority of cases, the culprit for this potentially fatal disease is a malfunction in the flap of tissue near the back of the throat. This variety of the disorder is known as obstructive sleep apnea, which affects over 12 million people overall.

Instead of remaining open, the flap closes when one exhales. This in turn cuts off the supply of oxygen; while a minimal amount of apnea is not dangerous and common in a lot of people; moderate to severe cases can lead to high blood pressure, headaches, weight gain and many cardiovascular diseases. The human body and all its vital organs needs fresh oxygen to survive, so it is not surprising that sleep apnea can be potentially debilitating, particularly for elderly individuals who may already be suffering from poor health.

Seniors who already suffer from problems with their heart and central nervous system have a higher risk of developing central sleep apnea, another variety of senior sleep apnea that largely affects those over age 50. People who are overweight, especially ones considered obese, are much more likely to suffer from the condition. Only 30% of sleep apnea patients are within a healthy weight range, a fact which stresses the importance of a proper diet and exercise plan.

Some elderly individuals live with sleep apnea for years without knowing they have the disorder, typically because it is so difficult to recognize. If you or your loved one is frequently tired during the day, snore loudly when sleeping, wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, have dry mouth or are thirsty in the morning, and have a lack of concentration, talk to your doctor about scheduling a sleep test.

Elderly Sleep Apnea: Treatments For the Disorder

The severity of your sleep apnea will determine the appropriate treatment plan, though the best thing you can do is make much-needed lifestyle changes. Losing weight, sleeping on your side, and refraining from smoking cigarettes can have amazing results on the frequency of those nightly interruptions.

Your doctor may also prescribe a custom-fit mouthpiece designed to keep your airways open throughout the night, ensuring the continual flow of oxygen. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines are also commonly given to patients with sleep apnea, and they work well for severe cases. Surgical intervention is a last resort, and may entail widening of one’s air passageways and/or a removal of the throat tissue causing the interference.

Be mindful of the warning signs of sleep apnea to ensure that you or your loved one stay healthy and receive a good night’s rest.

For more information check out ourĀ Senior Sleep Resources

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