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Are We Breathing at Night?

LaKesha's picture

I use to think that it was funny when my uncle would be having a full conversation and then start dozing off. Or when he would be eating and watching a movie and his head would just fall down. I mean who knew that it was more then just the fact that he was tired all the time, who knew that it was a serious medical condition. Well we found out just how serious it was when he woke up in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. Not only was he not able to breathe, but also he was not able to walk because his legs and feet were swollen. It was very scary for my grandmother to, at the age of 65, get her son, at the age of 23 and 415 pounds, to the hospital. My uncle is overweight and my grandmother has tried to convince her son to exercise more and eat less but he refused and matters just got worse. He was convinced that since he worked as a tow truck driver and mechanic, he was active enough. My grandmother tried for the longest to get him to go to the hospital but he refused. The thing about my uncle is that he is terrified of hospitals, always has been and always will be, most of all he is terrified of needles. I will never forget the night I had to hold his hand while tears fled from his eyes when he had to draw some blood for some tests. After many tests were taken and the doctors learned of his symptoms, my uncle was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The doctors have to keep the patient over night to watch their sleeping patterns, such as their movement while sleeping, their breathing and their brain activity.

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that causes you to stop breathing repeatedly while you sleep (“apnea” is Greek for “without breath”). (1) There are three different types of apnea, obstructive, central and mixed; obstructive apnea is the most common. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway. Central sleep apnea is when the airway is not blocked, but the brain does not tell the body’s muscles to breathe and mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both. (1) Almost more than 12 million Americans have sleep apnea. Just about 1 out of 25 men are diagnosed with sleep apnea while only 1 out of 50 women are diagnosed with it. It is more common in African Americans, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, than it is in Caucasians. (3) More than half of the people diagnosed with sleep apnea are overweight and snore very loud. Almost everyone with sleep apnea snores heavily, but not all people who snore heavily have sleep apnea.

There are many other symptoms of sleep apnea, such as high blood pressure, memory problems, weight gain, headaches, waking up still tired or a dry throat, personality changes, constant urination at night, etc. Sleep apnea can be more serious when it comes to driving, going to work or performing well on your schoolwork. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that lack of sleep may be the main cause of over one-third of fatal traffic accidents and as much as one-half of all traffic accidents. It can put you at risk for accidents on the job and impair your learning in school. Granting many of the symptoms are similar to those of adults, children do show different symptoms. Children younger than 5, snore, breathe through their mouth, sweat and wake up a lot while sleeping. Children that are older, snore, wet the bed, do poorly in school, behavior problems and short attention spans, and do not grow as quickly as they should. Sleep apnea can cause development problems in children such as causing the right side of their heart to get bigger. (2)

Although there are many symptoms of sleep apnea, it is still very hard to diagnose without tests being performed while you are sleep. The symptoms can easily be mistaken for stress, over-working yourself and simply lack of sleep. I would have never guessed that my uncle had a medical condition. A person can go on living and never know that they have sleep apnea, it usually takes a family member or a bed-partner to notice. And sleep apnea can be life threatening if it is not treated. It can also put you at risk for strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, a.k.a. “mini strokes”), coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and high blood pressure. (4)

There are many treatments for sleep apnea, depending on the severity of one’s disorder. Most treatments begin with life changes such as avoiding alcohol, certain medications, losing weight and not smoking. Some other treatments are special pillows that can keep you from sleeping on your back, or breathing machines that help air flow through your passage ways. More severe treatment is surgery that will help to remove tissue to widen your passage way. There is no cure for sleep apnea but there is a lot of successful treatment that can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems. There is a lot of research being done by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes of National Institutes of Health (NIH). They are focusing on finding ways to prevent, treat, and cure sleep disorders. (4)

I feel that there a lot of people in the world who are not educated about sleep apnea and can be living with it. Already in my family, my uncle has been diagnosed, my grandmother wants me and my older brother to get the study done, and one of my mother’s friends was diagnosed not too long after. For a disorder that is so common, I feel that not enough people know about it. Some people may say that the simple solutions for this disorder and a lot of other disorders that people suffer from are to live a healthy life, make sure you are not overweight, do not smoke and exercise regularly. But if it was that easy, would we have so many obese men, women and children walking this earth? Would we have people with high blood pressure and heart problems? It is not that simple to just fix these problems, so we should be educating people as much as we can, because all we can do is help; only the individual can make the final decision.

Works Cited

1. American Sleep Apnea Association

2. Healthwise

3. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Paul Grobstein's picture

sleep, overweight, and ...

I suspect there are lots of things that people would prefer to think wouldn't exist/happen if we were all just to "live a healthy life, make sure you are not overweight, do not smoke, and exercise regularly". But, as you say, if it was that easy ... Maybe everyone needs to learn a little biology, if for no other reason than to understand how complex life actually is?