April 1, 2011 -- Older adults who have sleep apnea and who are excessively sleepy in the daytime may have more than twice the risk of death as people who do not have both conditions, new research suggests.
In a study of 289 adults over age 65 without depression or dementia, the risk of death was not increased for people with sleep apnea without excessive daytime sleepiness or for those who reported only excessive daytime sleepiness without having sleep apnea, the researchers say.
“Excessive daytime sleepiness, when associated with sleep apnea, can significantly increase the risk of death in older adults,” study researcher Nalaka S. Gooneratne, MD, MSc, of the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, says in a news release. “We did not find that being sleepy in and of itself was a risk. Instead, the risk of increased mortality only seemed to occur when sleep apnea was also present.”
Sleep Apnea and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
Excessive daytime sleepiness affects 10% to 33% of the elderly, the researchers write, and this problem often is viewed as a normal result of getting older. But previous studies have shown that people who are overly sleepy in the daytime have an increased incidence of falls, functional impairment, and cognitive deficits.
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses, blocking the upper airway during sleep.
Researchers say only 4% of participants in the study had this condition, and there was no meaningful change in study results when this information was excluded from the analysis.
Looking for Clues on Sleep Apnea Risks
In the study, 74% of participants were female. The mean age of participants at the start of the study was 78.
About half of participants had significant levels of excessive daytime sleepiness and reported that they felt sleepy or struggled to stay awake during daylight hours at least three to four times per week.