Sleep apnea is a condition that disturbs your normal sleep, and prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep. Typically it is caused by a partial closing off of your throat area while sleeping. If this is a chronic problem, it can mimic or increase the “symptoms” of normal aging.
Often the problem first appears during middle age, and, if not treated, may get worse over time. People with chronic and significant sleep apnea get symptoms that can easily be confused with normal aging. And—good to know—if the sleep apnea is treated, many of the signs a person thought were do to normal aging, might improve.
Many people who have sleep apnea are not aware of it. It usually increases in degree over time (like aging), so normal aging changes and the sleep disorder can be appear together and often confused.
As we age, many people have other problems that cause them to sleep poorly. These include: medications, back pain, waking to urinate, and acid reflux. Many middle aged and older people think their sleep problems are due to these issues, when it really might be sleep apnea. Or, a mix of a sleep disturbance and normal aging.
Especially people who sleep alone might not suspect sleep apnea, since often it is a bed partner that pushes the person to get help, and a person with the problem may not know they snore. The snoring is due to the partial (or complete) temporary obstruction of the airway. The person with sleep apnea may or may not actually wake up (many times) due to the obstruction. Often they wake so briefly that they don’t remember it in the morning.
Symptoms as condition worsens
Besides the snoring, people with sleep apnea develop other symptoms. They are not getting the deep refreshing sleep they need, so they usually feel sleepy during the day. Because they don’t sleep well, they may gain weight, which is bad because weight gain makes sleep apnea worse.
Besides daytime sleepiness and weight gain, some of the problems sleep apnea may cause or worsen:
-high blood pressure
-problems with memory or concentration
May worsen with age (and menopause)
As we age, our muscle tone decreases, and this happens in our throats as well. So our throat can close off more easily as we relax during deeper stages of sleep. Weight gain with aging increases throat obstruction as well. Women seem to be somewhat protected from sleep apnea up until menopause. Then, as their protective hormones drop, their risk of sleep apnea increases a dramatic 10 times.
Sleep apnea can be treated
But the first thing is to make the diagnosis. The best way to do that is to monitor a person’s oxygen levels and other parameters during a night. It is best if you can find a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders, usually in larger cities. In a later post, we will feature an interview with a sleep specialist to educate us more about the diagnosis and treatment of this sleep disorder..
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