While education and information surrounding sleep apnea has certainly increased in the past few years, there are still an alarming number of people and healthcare professionals who don't see the disorder as the silent killer it can be. So many times the loud snoring associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnea is laughed or teased about and considered a normal part of many American's lives.
But based on our experiences here dealing with sleep apnea patients every day and on studies done by physicians specializing in sleep medicine, snoring and the other outward symptoms of sleep apnea (daytime sleepiness, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, dry mouth, acid reflux while sleeping) are not normal and should not be part of anyone's regular day-to-day routine. So many sufferers blame these outward signs on increased age or lifestyle changes and ignore or attempt to adapt to some of the debilitating symptoms. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is shockingly prevalent in today's population with an estimated 20 million sufferers in America alone (of which, only 15-20% are diagnosed) and yet most Americans don't know much about the disease or the dire effects it can have on one's health.
While the more obvious symptoms are enough to make anyone's life more difficult, an often ignored phenomenon is the associated medical conditions that can develop and seem to be related to untreated sleep apnea. The outward symptoms are enough to cause serious damage (daytime sleepiness can and does cause many car accidents), the underlying, associated medical threats can and do kill.
WebMD lists the following conditions as being associated to sleep apnea:
- Heart disease
- Psychological disorders
- Heart attack
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Memory loss
And really, in our experience with patients, this just seems to be the tip of a very scary iceberg. The truth is untreated sleep apnea is that dangerous. Even if the lack of oxygen to your brain doesn't kill you during an episode of apnea, the long term effects of that oxygen loss and sleep deprivation will most definitely have an influence on the other organs in your body.
Many people diagnosed with sleep apnea find that they already have an enlarged heart or the beginnings of heart disease. Their hearts have worked overtime during episodes of apnea for so long that they begin to run out of steam long before the average person's does. Sleep deprivation, another obvious symptom of untreated sleep apnea, can affect a person's mental and cognitive functioning to the point where the individual may be taking medicines for depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders but is not treating an underlying contributor - sleep apnea.
Anecdotally, we've heard countless tales of people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or slow metabolism who've seen improvements in those, seemingly unrelated, conditions when treating their sleep apnea with CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy. And, on the flip side of this, we've seen many patients succumb to heart disease or pass away in their sleep at too young an age.
Sleep apnea has been brought into the discussion surrounding underlying causes of death for Reggie White, Tim Russert, and Billy Mays. While it seems that some people are beginning to understand the dangers of sleep apnea, many still don't. And, unfortunately, that lack of knowledge can be deadly.
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