If you’ve been nudged awake by a bedmate and told that you’re snoring—loudly—more times than you care to admit, it might not be just your relationship that’s at risk. Frequent, loud snoring, coupled with daytime drowsiness, could indicate obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which your breathing stops repeatedly for 10 seconds or longer. The lapses in oxygen and the resulting interruptions to sleep in turn increase the risk of health conditions including high blood pressure and heart disease.
“Snoring and sleep apnea aren’t just cosmetic issues,” says Todd Swick, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of Texas School of Medicine in Houston and medical director of Apnix Sleep Diagnostics, a sleep-medicine lab. “Sleep apnea can lead to significant health problems, and in many cases, significant morbidity and mortality.”
Roughly one in six respondents to our survey told us that they had received a diagnosis of sleep apnea from a doctor. Of them, 75 percent reported that they currently use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which gently blows air into the throat to keep the airway open during sleep. It’s the most common treatment for apnea.
But our survey also uncovered a group of about 2,400 people, or 9 percent of the respondents, who might suffer from sleep apnea based on their responses but haven’t received a diagnosis. Fewer than a quarter of them had seen a doctor about their snoring and ongoing tiredness.
Anyone can have sleep apnea, but it’s most common among people who are obese, male, and middle-aged or older. In addition to loud snoring and daytime tiredness, symptoms include morning headaches, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. If you don’t have a bedmate and aren’t sure whether you snore, you could try using a voice-activated pocket recorder for a couple of nights.
If you suspect you have apnea, first try self-help measures, including losing weight, sleeping on your side (not your back), and avoiding alcohol and sedating medication. If you still have symptoms, make an appointment with your primary-care doctor and keep a daily log, including how many hours you sleep each night, how you feel when you wake up and throughout the day, and whether you took medication or consumed alcohol or caffeine. Also track whether you exercised and at what times.
Your doctor might recommend a diagnostic sleep test, which can take place at a lab or even at home using a portable device. If you receive a diagnosis of apnea, CPAP is the standard for treatment, but it can require some adaptation. Swick, who has apnea himself, suggests wearing the mask for about 30 minutes before bed to adjust to how it feels and practice breathing through your nose.
“It took me about six weeks to get used to it,” Swick says. “Now I can’t sleep without it, and most of my patients feel the same way.”