As per the latest statistical data, around 56% of people aged 65 years or older are suffering from some form of sleep disorder that causes them to stop breathing repeatedly through the night. It is increasingly becoming a serious concern, not just in Canada, but all over the world and contrary to popular belief it is not a condition that affects only elderly and overweight men. It can affect people of all ages, including both men and women, but its incidence is more among the senior population.
There are many types of sleep apnoea conditions where the patient experiences difficulties in breathing while sleeping. The most common type is called Obstructive Sleep Apnoea and it can become one of the biggest hindrances to living and enjoying life, especially among seniors.
It happens when the upper airway that assists in breathing while sleeping, gets blocked. The block is caused when the soft tissue present at the back of the throat collapses and closes down while lying down or sleeping. Other ways in which the airway may get blocked include a large-sized tongue, excessive fatty tissues in the throat area, tired or less responsive throat muscles etc. A narrow airway can also be a reason for breathing difficulties.
Another form of sleep apnoea that older adults are more prone to developing is called central sleep apnoea. It involves a repetitive absence or lack of efforts made to breathe while sleeping. It is caused by serious dysfunctions in the heart of the central nervous system. Clearly, it is a more serious condition but it is comparatively rare.
In either case, sleep apnoea is something that needs immediate attention and care. Studies have shown that sleep apnoea can make the patients excessively tired during the day time, and is often linked with other health issues like heart diseases, high blood pressure and stroke.
Dr. Lars William at Halo Heath Care says that it is always better to treat the condition early on, when the first few symptoms are spotted; the earlier the diagnosis the more effective the treatment. Hence it is up to the caregivers or the persons sleeping on the same bed as the seniors to discover symptoms and take immediate action, as oftentimes, the patient themselves may not be aware of their sleep conditions.
Sleep expert at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Christopher Li, says that the elderly population are at a higher risk of developing sleep apnoea; around 2 times more than middle-aged people.
One of the main reasons why the condition is more prevalent and more likely among senior adults is believed to be the presence of excessive fatty deposits in the parapharyngeal area, that is, the area surrounding the head and the neck. Older people may naturally have fatty deposits throughout their body, some of which may easily be removed while others may prevail. When this happens in the areas of the body that facilitate breathing while sleeping, it leads to sleep apnoea.
Other types of bodily changes surrounding the head and neck may also lead to sleep apnoea. Additionally, the lengthening of the soft palate is also cited as a possible common reason among senior adults.
Among women, an increased risk of the condition has been noticed with those who are post menopausal and are not under hormone replacement therapy. This is believed to be because of weight gain as well as unexplained hormonal changes.
Symptoms of sleep apnoea
The symptoms of sleep apnoea are quite similar among the middle aged and the senior population. Some of the very common symptoms associated with the condition include:
Loud snoring accompanied by pauses in between of silence
Gasping or choking during sleep
Tired feelings along with excessive sleepiness during the day time
Deterioration of the ability to concentrate and loss of memory
Falling asleep while doing other important things like driving or eating
Headache and discomfort during the morning time
It should be noted that snoring by itself, may not necessarily imply sleep apnoea. Although loud snoring is highly associated with the condition, simple snoring is way different from sleep apnoea.
Snoring happens when the flexible airway or tube supported by muscles collapses partially during sleep. On partial collapse, breathing causes the tube to vibrate, which results in snoring. It is when the tube collapses completely that the airway gets fully blocked and breathing stops, leading to apnoea.
There is a need for more prompt diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnoea among older adults, as very often people disregard the common symptoms attributing them to age-related natural deterioration. Traditional risk-factors affecting patients of sleep apnoea like obesity or BMI or neck circumference, are not as prevalent among the elderly, because of similar age-related issues. Furthermore, cognitive deterioration and the lack of accurate self-reporting make it all the more difficult to discover and treat the condition. Caregivers need to patiently observe and report sleep issues early on for effective treatment.