In addition, he said, sleep apnea increases people's risk for a host of other ailments, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke and early death.
"I've seen estimates that life expectancy is lowered by 20 years if you have untreated sleep apnea," Park said.
What causes an airway to close during sleep can vary from person to person. Obesity is a major risk factor because it narrows the airway. A tongue that's too large for the jaw can fall back and block the airway. And, in some people, Park said, a narrow passage through the nasal cavity or chronic allergies also can cause sleep apnea.
The standard way to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea has been to have an individual spend a night in a sleep lab, where the quality of the person's sleep is monitored along with the number of episodes of apnea, when breathing stops for 10 seconds or longer, or of hypopnea, when breathing nearly stops. A sleep apnea diagnosis requires more than five episodes of apnea or hypopnea an hour while asleep, Park said.
Today, though, at-home studies can be done, too, though Walsleben said that home tests don't give as much information as an in-lab sleep study.
But "for the vast majority of people," Park said, at-home studies are sufficient. "You have many less leads, and it's much simpler and much more conducive to sleep when you're at home," he said. People who have other medical conditions, such as heart disease or nighttime leg movements, that could mimic sleep apnea symptoms still should have a study done in a sleep lab, he said.
Once diagnosed, doctors generally prescribe continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, to treat sleep apnea. "A machine blows general positive air pressure and keeps the throat open," Park said, adding that the flow of air can be adjusted so that it's not too weak or too
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