Which is worse: Persistent snoring and lack of oxygen because you repeatedly stop breathing for 10 seconds, more or less, throughout the night, or wearing a face mask with an extended hose attached to a machine that pumps air into your nostrils? That’s the dilemma millions of men and women face as the incidence of obstructive sleep apnea escalates, especially among older adults.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder affecting as many as 10 percent of middle-aged men and 6 percent of middle-aged women in the United States. Breathing stops and starts because throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway while you sleep. Treatment may involve using a device to keep your airway open or undergoing a procedure to remove tissue from your nose, mouth or throat.
People with cardiovascular disease who also suffer from untreated obstructive sleep apnea are at greater risk of congestive heart failure, stroke or sudden death. I fall into that category. So when my cardiologist, after listening to my complaints about chronic fatigue and general malaise, referred me to a pulmonary specialist, I wasn’t surprised that he gave me a prescription for an overnight evaluation at a sleep apnea center.
I waited several weeks before making the appointment because I wanted to talk with others faced with the same problem. One of my best friends had gone to a center and left after a couple of hours. He couldn’t sleep. Others told me how expensive sleeping over would be. Over $2,000 to sleep in a small, dimly lit room, with wires hooked up to your head and chest and the constant unease that a stranger outside was monitoring every move you make and every breath you take (or don’t take).
The experience was exactly what I had been told to expect. I didn’t sleep soundly, but apparently, I registered enough zzzs to conclude that I was a prime candidate for a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. The mild pressure from a CPAP can prevent your airway from collapsing or becoming blocked.
It’s estimated that half of the people who try to sleep with a CPAP device are unable to adjust to having the apparatus strapped to their heads. So they stop wearing the mask. I was one of those people — until I started hearing stories about men in their 50s dying in their sleep, presumably because of sleep apnea. Fortunately, the people who produce the devices were improving the design at about the same time I decided to hook up again. I went from a hard mask over my mouth and nose, to a set of “pillows” that fit comfortably in both nostrils, to a flexible, light weight nose mask that I wear now. Nobody has yet figured out how to avoid getting tangled up in the tube that by morning is wrapped around my neck. It’s an annoyance, but bearable given the alternative.
Today, I’m a believer. So is my son. He stopped snoring and, he says, is sleeping much better because he’s breathing normally while he sleeps, thanks to his CPAP.
For more information about sleep apnea, I recommend sleepassociation.org. In most cases, the diagnosis and treatment are covered by insurance. But check with your carrier to be sure.
Richard J. Anthony, Sr., is the Executive Vice President of GRAND Media and the author of Organizations, People & Effective Communication.
Attention, Grands! Do you have sleep apnea? Please email GRAND Magazine and tell us how you’re handling it.