Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway becomes blocked during sleep, causing irregular or interrupted breathing. This creates shallow, fragmented sleep, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, says Todd J. Swick, MD, an assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of Texas School of Medicine, medical director of Houston Sleep and Neurology Associates, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (FAAN).
Damage to areas of the brain related to memory and cognitive function is another major risk, says Alon Y. Avidan, MD, MPH, FAAN, a professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Center and Neurology Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, and chair of the American Academy of Neurology's Sleep Medicine Section.
In sleep apnea, as well as in pulmonary hypertension and emphysema, blood oxygen levels drop during the night, reducing oxygen flow to the brain. A study published in December 2014 in the journal Neurology measured blood oxygen levels in elderly men during sleep, and found that the men with the lowest oxygen levels were almost four times more likely to develop tiny lesions in the brain associated with an increased risk for dementia.
Here are some ways to manage the condition:
LOSE WEIGHT. Since obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, dropping excess pounds is crucial, says Marc Raphaelson, MD, a member of the AAN and a sleep specialist in Washington, DC. If you already have sleep apnea, losing weight can make the symptoms less severe.
SAY NO TO DRUGS. Alcohol can slow breathing even in healthy people and can worsen airway obstruction in sleep apnea, says Dr. Avidan. And caffeine and nicotine can make your sleep even more fragmented, increasing the risk for weight gain and developing heart conditions, Dr. Swick adds.
SKIP SEDATIVES. Both over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills can depress breathing, making the symptoms of sleep apnea worse, says Dr. Swick. Muscle relaxants and newer antipsychotic medicines such as aripiprazole (Abilify) and quetiapine (Seroquel) can have the same effect.
USE A CPAP MACHINE. The most common treatment prescribed for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which consists of a mask connected to a small fan-like machine worn while sleeping. “The fan blows air into your air passage, which keeps the passage open,” says Dr. Raphaelson.
SEE YOUR DENTIST. If you can't sleep with a CPAP machine, you might have success with dental appliances that pull the jaw forward, creating a more open airway during sleep, Dr. Swick says. To get one of these devices, look for a specialized dentist through the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (www.aadsm.org).