Sleep Apnea In Seniors

Apr 21, 2016

Sleep Apnea In Seniors

Share Article

The average person spends about 25 years of their entire life sleeping; that’s a significant portion of time to be doing relatively nothing! However, sleep is one of the healthiest habits available to our bodies, especially as we age.

Senior Sleep Apnea

With growing older comes a new set of health challenges, and sleep apnea can be a hidden obstacle to your wellbeing. It comes from the Greek word “apneas,” meaning “without breath.” Essentially, sleep apnea consists of interruptions in one’s breathing throughout the night. This reduces oxygen flow to the brain and ultimately prevents deep sleep.With these interruptions occurring as much as 30 times an hour, this means you’ll be getting only about 4 hours of sleep compared to the 6-7 hours recommended for people over 65.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that around 20 percent of all older adults suffer from sleep apnea to varying degrees. 

Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs in three ways:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea – When the muscles in the throat relax too much, a flap of skin prevents oxygen flow causing interruptions.
  2. Central sleep apnea – The brain itself does not send the proper signals to your muscles that regulate breathing while asleep, affecting the entire respiratory system.
  3. Complex sleep apnea syndrome – Also referred to as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, resulting from a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Some people may live with sleep apnea for years without even knowing it. The symptoms are usually so consistent that this condition can get shrugged off as general lethargy, even dementia in the worst of cases. Because the symptoms of sleep apnea may overlap with other conditions, it can be very hard to diagnose. The main warning signs include:

  • Loud, laboring snoring.
  • Sudden awakenings followed by a shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth or a sore throat
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Lack of concentration during the day
  • General irritability from tiredness

 If you are having considerable trouble staying awake during your daily activities, it may be time to consult a sleep specialist. While a minimal amount of interruptions can go unnoticed, moderate to severe cases may lead to high blood pressure, headaches, weight gain, and other cardiovascular diseases.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

Getting the proper amount of sleep is a proven way to reduce stress that may eventually contribute to other present or underlying health conditions. The first step is to undergo a sleep test with specialist supervision. These tests usually involve an overnight stay in a sleep disorder center in order to closely monitor your specific needs and symptoms.

Sleep apnea detection tests include:

  • Nocturnal Polysomnography – This comprehensive test monitors your heart, lung, and brain activity, measuring breathing patterns and bodily movements. Oxygen levels are observed to determine how severe the sleep apnea may be.
  •  Home Sleep Tests – People may find it difficult to reproduce their sleeping habits in clinical settings, so your doctor may recommend this method. These tests produce similar, yet simplified results compared to nocturnal polysomnography. Any drops in oxygen corresponding to waking up are recorded for later evaluation. 

Treating Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be treated in several mechanical and surgical ways. In milder cases, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes. People who are overweight make up 70 percent of individuals with sleep apnea, only adding to the condition’s negative health risks. Additionally, smoking constricts your airways leading to frequent inflammation and many other diseases.For severe cases, treatment options are varied based on your specific needs. 

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) – This machine delivers air pressure through a nose mask while you sleep. By increasing pressure within your nasal cavity, airway passages remain open to provide smooth, consistent breathing.
    • CPAP devices come in several versions that can adjust pressure automatically (Auto-CPAP), while others provide more pressure during inhalation and less when you exhale (BiPAP).
  • Expiratory Positive Airway Pressure (EPAP) – These small, disposable devices create minor resistance during inhalation while assisting your nostrils to stay open. EPAP devices are mostly recommended for milder forms of obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Adaptive Servo-Ventilation (ASV) – Using a built-in computer, this device learns your sleeping patterns to stabilize your breathing and prevent pauses.
  • Oral Appliances – Similar to mouth guards, these devices are available through your dentist and are designed to bring the jaw forward, opening the airways. These are also mostly recommended for obstructive sleep apnea. 

Surgical Options

Surgery is most commonly the last resort when other treatment options fail. Doctors will often recommend mechanical treatments for up to three months before considering a surgical method, yet for some, it may be the only solution.

These procedures consist of enlarging the airways of the throat or nose, including the possibility of implants or a repositioning of the jaw.

In the most extreme, life-threatening cases, doctors will perform a tracheostomy. This consists of a surgical opening in the neck structured with a metal or plastic tube to be used as your primary means of breathing.

Managing Your Sleep Apnea

These treatment options have the potential to help you gain the restful sleep you need, and a consultation with your doctor or a sleep specialist is the first step. Even after finding a solution to your sleep apnea, maintaining a lifestyle that allows your treatment to remain effective is key.

Certain medications such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and alcohol can potentially relax your throat muscles too much, making breathing difficult. As mentioned before, smoking is also a horrible hazard to your health and only increases the difficulty of leading a healthy life.

Additionally, losing weight can help those suffering from sleep apnea by reducing the constriction of your throat. Exercise, in general, will allow your system function properly and limit any of the effects sleep apnea has already had on your body.

Sleep apnea can be anything from a minor ailment to a life-threatening condition. A quick and honest consultation can guide you to the proper rest your body needs.


Please enter a comment.
Please enter a name.
Please enter a valid email address in the form "".
Please check the box to the left of "I'm not a robot".

Frequently Asked Questions

I just turned 63 and I can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep as well as I used to. Do you have any recommendations for what I can do to treat this that doesn't involve medication?

Sleep disorders are a common problem in elderly adults. To help combat this issue, most doctors will recommend a number of treatments. Here are a few: avoid large meals before bedtime, avoid stimulants starting mid-afternoon, do not take naps, patriciate in regular exercise, have a consistent bedtime schedule, and avoid using the bed for things other than sleep and sexual activity. 

See All Answers »

Our grandmother’s assisted living home recently told us that she is waking at night and having intense night terrors. What is the cause of this?

Oh my! It’s possible she might be suffering from a REM sleep disorder, something that causes people to act out their dreams. Although this is very rare, such sleep disorders may also cause intense and terrifying experiences at night. In some cases, people can become violent, kicking and flailing in their surroundings. It’s best to consult a professional before making any changes, but there are some medications that can be useful!

See All Answers »

Search By State

Find Senior Caring Options by State
Finding the perfect senior care community is only part of making your loved one’s senior living transition smooth. At SeniorCaring, we know that it is also equally important to be aware of what other community services and resources are available to your family’s senior. Choose your location and find local resources for your senior.