(BPT) - Despite common misconceptions, anyone - regardless of gender, weight or fitness level - can develop obstructive sleep apnea, a life-threatening condition characterized by episodes of complete or partial airway obstruction during sleep.
As many as 12 million to 18 million American adults have untreated sleep apnea, and the experts at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine are recommending the following steps for diagnosis and treatment to significantly improve overall health, mood and productivity.
Be aware of the risk factors
Your risk of sleep apnea increases between middle and older age and with the amount of excess body weight you carry. In general, men have a greater likelihood of developing the disease. However, menopause is a risk factor for sleep apnea in women. Your risk is also higher if family members have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Smoking is another significant risk factor, as well as being a detriment to your overall health.
In addition to these more commonly known risk factors, many people don't realize that they're in greater danger of developing sleep apnea if they already suffer from other common diseases.
'Seven in 10 Type 2 diabetics and 30 to 40 percent of adults with hypertension also have obstructive sleep apnea,' says Dr. M. Safwan Badr, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 'As a result, patients with these conditions should pay close attention for potential symptoms and then seek necessary treatment.'
Watch for symptoms
While the symptom most commonly associated with sleep apnea is snoring, not everyone who snores has the disease. However, when snoring is paired with choking, gasping or pauses in breathing during sleep, it's a more likely indicator of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea symptoms also may appear during the daytime and include morning headaches, excessive sleepiness, trouble concentrating, memory or learning problems and general moodiness, irritability or depression.
'Sleep apnea can make you wake up in the morning feeling tired, even though you believe you've had a full night of sleep,' says Badr. 'During the day, you may feel incredibly fatigued because you're actually waking up numerous times throughout the night and your body isn't getting the rest it needs.'
Get evaluated and treated
If you suspect that you have the risk factors and symptoms of sleep apnea, it's important that you are evaluated by a board-certified sleep medicine physician right away. Left untreated, sleep apnea may have a serious impact on your overall health, even increasing your risk of death.
The sleep medicine physician will have the training and expertise to diagnose your condition. He or she will conduct a thorough physical examination and sleep evaluation, asking questions like whether or not symptoms began when you gained weight or stopped exercising - and whether your partner or roommate has complained that you snore or make choking noises in your sleep. If the sleep physician determines that you are at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, then you will be scheduled for a sleep study. Objective sleep testing will provide the data that will enable the sleep physician to make an accurate diagnosis.
Once diagnosed, the recommended treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, which provides a steady stream of air through a mask to gently keep your airway open throughout the night - making it easier to breathe. In patients with moderate or severe sleep apnea, it's estimated that CPAP therapy reduces the 10-year risk of heart attack by 49 percent and stroke by 31 percent.
'Treating sleep apnea provides all the benefits of improved sleep, including increased alertness during the day and improved memory and cognitive function,' says Badr. 'Clinical evidence also shows that sleep apnea treatment lowers blood pressure - decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease - and improves nighttime glucose levels and insulin sensitivity among Type 2 diabetics.'
To find a sleep specialist or accredited sleep center in your area, visit www.sleepeducation.com.