Why you should care about sleep apnea
BY AMBER SMITH
You may have sleep apnea if…• a bedmate cannot sleep with you because you snore so loudly, • a relative can hear you snoring from outside of your bedroom, • you awake during the night gasping for breath,• you’re obese and sleepy during the day, or• you fall asleep inappropriately.
Neurologist Antonio Culebras, MD, director of medical neurology at the Upstate Sleep Center, explains that sleep apnea means you have shallow respirations or stop breathing while asleep, more than five times an hour.
He advises speaking with your doctor about a referral for a sleep study.
“Very seldom do people die in their sleep as a result of sleep apnea,” Culebras says. “The brain has an alerting system.
“When the brain senses that not enough air or oxygen is coming to the brain, it wakes up the patient. We call that arousals. Those are awakenings of 30 seconds or less, so they are not recorded in memory. The patient does not remember them. But if there are hundreds of arousals during the night, you can imagine how the sleep is fragmented and of poor quality — and as a result, the patient is very tired and fatigued the following day.”
Sleep apnea increases blood pressure and may indicate that the oxygen level in your blood is low, which can be perilous for your heart and your brain. You are at higher risk for atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disturbance that increases your chance of a stroke. Low oxygen levels can also cause “microinfarcts” in the brain, which can lead to vascular dementia.
Doctors believe that treating sleep apnea — usually by wearing a continuous positive airway pressure device when you sleep — can reduce those risks.
“We know that treatment can lower blood pressure,” Culebras says. “Patients also notice their level of fatigue during the day improves.”
This article is from the winter 2020 issue of Upstate Health magazine.