Los Angeles resident Andrew Altenberg hasn't slept well since the Reagan administration, but his sleepless nights have nothing to do with '80s nostalgia. For over a decade, he's been waking up several times a night for no apparent reason and spending most mornings in a cranky haze.
"I'd go to work and have to remind myself to be extra nice or just keep my mouth shut for the first few hours because I'd be afraid to say something rude," Altenberg says.
Altenberg followed this routine until he entered into a serious relationship. His partner was concerned about his odd snoring pattern. Soon thereafter, Altenberg visited an ear, nose, and throat specialist and found out his crabby mornings were not an attitude problem but a case of sleep apnea.
Don't Hold Your Breath
Sleep apnea is characterized by breathing pauses, or apneic events, caused by an obstruction in the airway, generally at the base of the soft palate or lining of the neck. These events tend to last from 10 to 40 seconds, leaving sufferers gasping for air. Jerrod Kram, M.D., Medical Director of the California Center for Sleep Disorders in Oakland, Calif., commonly sees patients who stop breathing for up to a minute.
"The longest that I've ever seen was three minutes," Kram said. "With patients like that, you can actually see their complexion change, and they tend to briefly wake up when they eventually take a breath."
The National Sleep Foundation lists high blood pressure, irritability, depression, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, and impaired driving as common effects of sleep apnea, with all of these symptoms building upon each other and possibly worsening over time.
Who's at Risk?
According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep apnea affects 12 million Americans, about two-thirds of whom are men. Studies have also shown that postmenopausal women are just as likely as men to have sleep apnea, suggesting a possible hormonal link.
The American Sleep Apnea Association lists the following risk factors:
- Being over 40
- Being overweight
- Being a back sleeper
- Having someone in your family with sleep apnea