Healthbeat Report: Losing Sleep

May 19, 2011 8:33:16 PM PDT
Sleep apnea is characterized by potentially life threatening pauses in breathing. Left untreated, it may lead to dangerous medical problems. It's also more common than most people realize. Some 12 million Americans may be affected. But many don't even know it - especially women.

A middle aged man with a weight issue who snores fits the classic case of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the airway collapses and blocks breathing. Laurie Peltz was shocked when she was hit with the same diagnosis.

"Sleep apnea is not something that really comes into your head," said Peltz.

Her symptoms didn't send up an urgent, red flag. Peltz was snoring a bit and waking up tired and grumpier than usual. Then there was a scare.

"I woke up not able to take in a breath. I felt like it was closed off," said Peltz.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious disorder that can strike anyone at any age. The best known risk factors are being male, overweight and 40 or older.

For women, weight and age are also factors. Yet, they're less likely to be diagnosed compared to men. And that is worrisome because sleep apnea should not be taken lightly. Left untreated, it can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. What's more, the condition may be plaguing more women than previously thought.

"We have a mountain of data, but we are just beginning to understand the complexities of sleep and women during menopause," said Martica Hall, Ph.D., sleep researcher, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Dr. Hall says preliminary results from a multi center study shows a significant amount of sleep apnea in women in their 50s. Of the more than 350 studied, 60 percent had at least mild sleep apnea as they progressed through the menopausal transition. Symptoms were moderate to severe in more than 20 percent.

"The number one predictor of the degree to which women experience this sleep disorder breathing is their weight," said Dr. Hall.

Weight gain later in life happens to many women and can lead to various problems. Experts are trying to understand how changes in weight distribution impacts breathing. A thicker neck and throat muscles relaxing with age play a big role. But doctors may not be on the look out for in women. Symptoms can be vague and include lack of energy, mood swings, insomnia and headaches.

"So those symptoms in women are often accounted for or blamed on other things, depression stress too much work those kinda issues not attributed to apnea," said Dr. Zoran Grujic, neurologist, Central DuPage Hospital.

Dr. Grujic says misdiagnosis in women is not unusual but a thorough sleep study can help.

"If a doctor does not question how you sleep at night then a patient should bring it up," said Dr. Grujic.

For the past seven and a half years, Laurie Peltz used a CPAP, Continuous positive airway pressure, a particular type of ventilation therapy, to help her breathe at night. But she's since dropped 50 pounds and the sleep apnea is gone. It's a topic she hopes others will discuss.

"Talk to your bed partner and say have you noticed me taking pauses in breathing, or snoring and don't worry about hurting my feelings," said Peltz.

Researchers are also looking into the role hormones might play in the gender differences of this problem. Obstructive sleep apnea is only one of many different sleep disorders. And there's still a chance apnea is not the cause. If it is, there are strategies to treat it, from lifestyle changes to breathing and dental devices.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Central DuPage Hospital

Link to information on Central DuPage Hospital's sleep lab:

Dr. Zoran Grujic's profile

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