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The Doctors: Sleep apnea myths
The Doctors: Sleep apnea myths: E.R. physician Dr. Travis Stork explains how The Doctors' latest article in USA Weekend Magazine focuses on common myths about obstructive sleep apnea.
Mood, memory and alertness may be affected. / Illustration by Leon Lawrence III / USA WEEKEND

Snoring means you have sleep apnea: That’s one commonly held belief about the condition that’s just not true. Lots of people snore — some estimates say up to half of Americans do it at one point or another. But there’s the harmless “sawing of logs,” and then there’s the snoring associated with obstructive sleep apnea, which is often characterized as loud and chronic, gets worse when you’re sleeping on your back, and — most telling — is peppered with silent pauses, sometimes followed by snorting or choking sounds. These pauses are the midsleep breathing interruptions that define apnea: They last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes and can occur 30 times or more an hour. Here are three more myths about sleep apnea, and the facts behind the fiction:

MYTH: It's not that serious.

The combination of not-restful sleep and reduced blood oxygen levels from disrupted breathing can be tough on the body. It can strain your heart and cardiovascular system, which may increase your risk of hypertension and heart disease, as well as congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia or stroke. Findings from new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggest sleep apnea may also boost the risk of sudden cardiac arrest. The disorder can also mess with your mood and memory and leave you feeling exceptionally drowsy during the day, which puts you at a higher risk for work-related accidents and automobile accidents.

MYTH: Only older adults develop sleep apnea.

Though it’s true that risk increases with age, anyone can develop sleep apnea — even children. Men are more likely than women to have apnea; so are people who are overweight or have small airways in their noses, throats, or mouths. Family history, smoking and ethnicity may play a role as well. Recent, preliminary research also suggests a link between asthma and obstructive sleep apnea: According to scientists who worked on the study, people with asthma were about 70 more likely to develop apnea eight years later.

MYTH: I'll have to sleep with a breathing mask.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines — which gently blow air through a mask to help keep airways open while you sleep — are a common and effective treatment for moderate to severe apnea, but if you can’t tolerate the devices, there are other options. Your doctor may suggest different types of airway pressure devices; researchers also are exploring a promising new treatment for more serious cases that involves implanting an electrode to help stimulate the upper airway. For mild cases, wearing a mouthpiece designed to keep airways open may help, and so could changes in living habits, such as losing weight, sleeping on your side or avoiding alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy.

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