Know your risk – two out of three obstructive sleep apnea sufferers are undiagnosed

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, March 15, 2012

Getting enough sleep is essential for a healthy lifestyle and a lack of sleep can have a negative impact on health, work and life. The good news is that most sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, but less than a third of sufferers seek professional help.

Sleep problems can lead to more than just daytime drowsiness. A 2011 study in “Thorax” on sleep-disordered breathing relates sleep to serious health consequences, economic troubles and even a higher rate of unemployment. It’s important to understand the most common categories of sleep disorders which, according to the National Sleep Foundation, include: insomnia, parasomnias (sleepwalking, night terrors, night eating), REM sleep disorders, narcolepsy, sleep deprivation and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

OSA is the most common form of sleep-disordered breathing, and affects approximately five to six percent of the adult population. Individuals who suffer from this condition stop breathing repeatedly during sleep, but are generally not aware of it – more than two-thirds of all people who have sleep apnea are not diagnosed.

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Anyone can have OSA as it occurs in men, women and children of all ages; however it is more common in men and people who are overweight. It is caused by a blocking of the upper airway. The collapse of the airway may be due to such factors as a large tongue, extra tissue or decreased muscle tone holding the airway open. Each breathing stop can last from 10 seconds to more than a minute and has a drop in oxygen associated with each event.

Symptoms of OSA can include loud, disruptive snoring; gasping or choking during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches; memory or learning problems and feeling irritable and not being able to concentrate on work. Additional symptoms to watch for include mood swings or personality changes, waking up with dry throat and frequent urination at night.

Due to a lack of awareness by the public and health care professionals, the vast majority of OSA sufferers remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated. Sleep-related respiratory disturbances like OSA and loss of quality of sleep can lead to numerous health problems such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. They can also lead to lack of attention, decreased work and academic productivity, and even motor vehicle accidents.

In addition to all of the health implications, OSA also has an economic impact on sufferers. The annual economic cost of moderate-to-severe OSA in the United States is estimated to be $65 – $165 billion, which is greater than asthma, heart failure, stroke and hypertensive disease, according to a 2010 Harvard Medical School study, “The Price of Fatigue: The surprising economic costs of unmanaged sleep apnea.” The same study found that unmanaged OSA can also lead to poor on the job performance, unhappy marriages and even divorce, which can all impact personal finances.

One of the main treatment options for OSA is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). The therapy provides a gentle flow of pressured air through the nose and/or mouth using a mask. The air pressure prevents airway collapse, allowing the user to breathe freely during sleep. This non-invasive therapy can alleviate the symptoms of OSA when used as prescribed.

As the third pillar of good health, sleep is essential to leading a healthy life. If you think you or someone you know may suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), visit to take a self-assessment sleep quiz and learn more.