Sleep and Aging

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is an example of sleep-disordered breathing – a condition that makes it more difficult to breathe during sleep. When severe, sleep-disordered breathing disorders may cause people to wake up often at night and be drowsy during the day.

Two Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two kinds of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a narrowing or blockage of the upper airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses during sleep. If these episodes occur frequently or are severe, they may cause a person's sleep to be fragmented throughout the night. This may disrupt their sleep and make them sleepy during the day.
  • Central sleep apnea is less common. In central sleep apnea, the airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. Often, both types of sleep apnea occur in the same person.

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common among older adults and among people who are significantly overweight. Obstructive sleep apnea can increase a person's risk for high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease, and cognitive problems. However, more research is needed to understand the long-term consequences of obstructive sleep apnea in older adults.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Symptoms of sleep apnea include

  • loud and chronic snoring
  • choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
  • long pauses in breathing
  • daytime sleepiness, no matter how much time you spend in bed.

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea can affect anyone, but certain factors can put one at increased risk. Risk factors for sleep apnea include

  • being overweight
  • being male
  • being over age 40
  • having a large neck size
  • having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
  • having a family history of sleep apnea
  • gastroesophageal reflux
  • nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems.

Reducing Your Risk

Obesity is the number one risk factor for sleep apnea, and you may be able to reduce your risk for sleep apnea by maintaining an appropriate weight. If you are not overweight, try to maintain an appropriate weight through proper diet and exercise. Limit alcohol intake and avoid taking sedative medications that can increase the number of sleep apnea episodes you have each night and can make sleep apnea worse. Heavy smokers are more likely to develop sleep apnea than nonsmokers. If you smoke, quit.