Silent Struggles: Unveiling the Risks of Sleep Apnea for Aging Adults

For aging adults, the risks of sleep apnea extend beyond mere sleep disruption, posing serious threats to heart health, increasing the likelihood of strokes, and exacerbating cognitive decline. Ignoring or underestimating these risks can significantly compromise the quality of life and increase the need for long-term care.

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Silent Struggles: Unveiling the Risks of Sleep Apnea for Aging Adults
5 Min Read March 28th, 2024

Wrestling with the silent disruptor of sleep apnea can make each morning feel like emerging from a battle you didn't know you were fighting, with fatigue as your constant shadow despite a full night's rest. It's this relentless exhaustion and the mysterious struggle for breath in the dead of night that often compels one to seek the answers and treatment that can turn restless nights into restful repose.

Many people underestimate the importance of a good night's sleep. But for millions of Americans, particularly older adults, a seemingly simple act like sleeping can be disrupted by a hidden health danger: Sleep Apnea.

Sleep Apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses in your sleep can occur dozens or even hundreds of times per night, often lasting for several seconds. The lack of oxygen intake can jolt the body awake, disrupting sleep patterns and leading to daytime fatigue.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Several factors contribute to Sleep Apnea, with some becoming more prominent with age. These include:

  • Narrowed Upper Airway: According to Mayo Clinic, enlarged tonsils, a thick tongue, or a recessed jaw can all contribute to a narrower airway, making it harder to breathe during sleep. These anatomical features can become more pronounced as we age. 
  • Muscle Weakness: As people age, the muscles responsible for keeping the airway open can weaken, increasing the risk of collapse during sleep. 
  • Weight Gain: Excess weight further narrows the airway and contributes to sleep apnea severity. Weight gain is a common concern as we age. 

Untreated Sleep Apnea and Long-Term Health Risks

Leaving Sleep Apnea untreated can have serious consequences, particularly for older adults. The constant sleep disruptions and oxygen deprivation can increase the risk of various health problems, including:

  • High Blood Pressure: Sleep Apnea can put undue strain on the heart, leading to high blood pressure and potentially heart attack or stroke
  • Stroke: Chronic sleep disruptions and oxygen deprivation can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of stroke. 
  • Cognitive Decline: Sleep Apnea has been linked to memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and an increased risk of dementia. 

Studies indicate that obstructive sleep apnea, characterized by disrupted breathing leading to lower blood oxygen levels, elevates the risk of cardiovascular problems. Recent research, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health and featured in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, reveals that the primary reason for this increased risk is the significant reduction in blood oxygen levels caused by interrupted breathing.

Ali Azarbarzin, Ph.D., is a study author and director of the Sleep Apnea Health Outcomes Research Group at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston. Dr. Azarbarzin says the findings will help better characterize high-risk versions of obstructive sleep apnea.

We think that including a higher-risk version of obstructive sleep apnea in a randomized clinical trial would hopefully show that treating sleep apnea could help prevent future cardiovascular outcomes.

Furthermore, untreated Sleep Apnea can lead to increased daytime fatigue, making it difficult to maintain an active lifestyle and potentially increasing the need for long-term care.

Many individuals either overlook the symptoms of sleep apnea or, once diagnosed, neglect its treatment despite the risks being significant and the full effects of the symptoms not always immediately apparent.

Treatments and Advancements in CPAP Technology

Fortunately, Sleep Apnea is a treatable condition. The most common treatment is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy. A CPAP machine uses a mask to deliver a constant stream of air pressure that keeps the airway open during sleep. While traditional CPAP machines can be bulky and noisy, advancements in technology offer new options:

  • Auto-CPAP: These machines automatically adjust pressure throughout the night for a more comfortable experience.
  • Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP): This therapy provides alternating high and low air pressure levels, which can be beneficial for certain individuals.
  • Travel-friendly CPAP machines: Portable and lightweight options make treatment easier while traveling.

The gold standard treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP therapy. It's a simple yet effective approach. A CPAP machine delivers a gentle, constant stream of air pressure through a mask worn over your nose or mouth. This positive air pressure acts like a splint, holding your airway open and preventing the soft tissues in your throat from collapsing during sleep. This ensures uninterrupted breathing throughout the night, reducing the frequency and severity of sleep apneas and significantly improving sleep quality. Widely acknowledged as the premier treatment, CPAP Masks prove highly efficacious for numerous individuals with sleep apnea.

Alternative Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea

While CPAP therapy is considered the most effective treatment for sleep apnea, other treatment options exist.

Oral Appliances for Comfort

Oral appliance therapy offers a comfortable alternative for individuals with mild to moderate sleep apnea or those who have difficulty adjusting to CPAP. These custom-made mouthpieces gently shift the jaw and tongue forward, opening the airway and preventing collapse. Oral appliances are a good option for those seeking a less intrusive treatment approach.

Addressing the Root Cause with Surgery

In some cases, surgery might be recommended to address the underlying anatomical abnormalities contributing to sleep apnea. Depending on the specific issue, surgical interventions may involve:

  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): This surgical procedure removes excess tissue from the throat to widen the airway and reduce obstruction.
  • Septoplasty and Turbinate Reduction: This procedure corrects a deviated septum or enlarged nasal turbinates to improve nasal airflow and breathing during sleep.
  • Maxillomandibular Advancement (MMA): Repositioning of the upper and lower jaw to increase the size of the airway and prevent collapse.

Lifestyle Changes for Overall Well-Being

Lifestyle modifications are crucial in managing sleep apnea and improving overall sleep quality. Losing weight through diet and exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight, significantly reducing pressure on the airway and lessening the severity of sleep apnea. 

Additionally, incorporating healthy sleep habits like a consistent sleep schedule, a relaxing bedtime routine, and avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed can significantly enhance sleep quality and alleviate symptoms associated with sleep apnea.

Don't Ignore the Problem: Early Detection and Treatment is Key

If you experience chronic daytime fatigue, frequent nighttime awakenings, or loud snoring, consult your doctor to discuss the possibility of sleep apnea. A sleep study, typically conducted in a sleep lab overnight, can diagnose Sleep Apnea by monitoring your breathing patterns and oxygen levels throughout the night.

A sleep study, often conducted in a specially equipped sleep center, provides a detailed picture of your sleep patterns and identifies potential breathing disruptions. During the study, technicians will painlessly attach sensors to your scalp, face, and chest to monitor brain activity, muscle movements, breathing patterns, and oxygen levels throughout the night.  

You'll be able to sleep comfortably in a private room, and a health professional will be on hand to monitor the study and ensure your comfort. A doctor will then analyze the data collected during the sleep study to diagnose sleep apnea and determine its severity.

Early detection and treatment of sleep apnea are crucial for preventing long-term health complications. Untreated Sleep Apnea increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even diabetes. These chronic conditions significantly impact your quality of life and lead to a greater need for long-term care services.

Long-term care costs are costly and not covered by health insurance or Medicare since they only pay for short-term skilled services. 

By exploring and discussing a sleep study and the treatment options with your doctor, you can develop a personalized plan to manage your sleep apnea and achieve a restful night's sleep, paving the way for a healthier and more vibrant life.

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About the Author

Linda is a former journalist who now enjoys writing about topics she is interested in so she “can keep her mind active and engaged”.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

Editor's Note

As we age, our lives inevitably change in ways that can challenge our independence and well-being. Chronic illnesses, accidents, mobility issues, dementia, and frailty become more common, each contributing to an increased need for long-term care. These conditions, which can affect anyone regardless of their past health, often require assistance with daily activities that many of us take for granted, such as eating, bathing, and dressing. The reality is stark: as we grow older, the likelihood of needing long-term care significantly increases.

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The ideal time to add an LTC policy to your retirement plan is in your 40s or 50s; however, if you have reasonably good health, affordable options are available in your 60s and even older. 

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