Sleep apnoea responds to airway devices1st March 2011
Sleep apnoea, a condition in which the air supply to the lungs is blocked during sleep, is becoming more and more common in the United States.
The condition is linked to growing obesity, and can prevent people from getting a good night's sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnoea, in which the brain wakes people who stop breathing briefly throughout the night to maintain their oxygen supply, affects around 2% of women and 4% of men.
Those affected are often not aware of being woken, but the continual disruption of their sleep leads to drowsiness and fatigue during waking hours.
The term comes from a Greek word meaning "without breath", and describes a condition which was previously unrecognised but which is now being increasingly diagnosed.
It is far more likely to affect older people, possibly as many as 40% of those over 65, researchers estimate, because their throat muscles are more prone to collapse as people age.
The prevalence of sleep apnoea rises steeply in post-menopausal women, but being overweight also increases the risk of having the condition.
According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep medicine in 2005, the average weight of women referred to sleep clinics for sleep apnoea had shown a 10% increase in just nine years, while the average weight of male patients had risen by 5%.
Even children are now being treated for the condition because of being overweight, as opposed to traditional causes like enlarged tonsils or adenoids which can constrict the airway of younger people.
Paediatric sleep specialist David Gozal of the University of Chicago said he has seen the percentage of obese children receiving treatment on his sleep apnoea programme rise to more than 57% from just 23% in 1995.
Sleep medicine research director Meir Kryger of Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut said his clinic was now treating children between the ages of 7 and 9 and young teenagers.
Kryger said his youngest obese patient was just 4 years old.
A good night's sleep is crucial for concentration on work and study, as well as tasks like driving.
The condition has also been linked to a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
In sleep apnoea, blood pressure rises when a blocked airway stops oxygen from getting to body tissues, because blood vessels constrict.
The waking process also boosts people's heart rate and blood pressure, and changes hormones in a way that reduces the effectiveness of insulin, creating a greater risk of diabetes.
Sleep apnoea in children can impede learning and slow physical development.
Overweight people are more prone to it because the fat tissue in their throat makes the airway narrower and more likely to collapse.
Five apnoea events per hour during sleep, accompanied by sleepiness during the daytime, will prompt a diagnosis of sleep apnoea, although some people suffer from as many as 30 apnoea events per hour.
The most common treatment is a mask that blows air into the airway, exerting continuous pressure and keeping it open.
A recent study found that patients saw marked improvements after just three weeks of using the treatment.
Weight loss is always helpful, but people who are not well rested have problems sticking to diet and exercise regimes.
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