An estimated 22 million Americans have moderate to severe sleep apnea – a condition in which the upper airway becomes blocked and/or airflow is reduced or stopped, or the brain stops signaling the muscles to breathe, causing breathing to stop for up to 30 seconds at a time. Study after study has shown that sleep apnea can increase the risk of a host of conditions (including asthma, various cancers, heart disease, and eye disorders), but one new study shows that it can also age you beyond your years. The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that apnea can cause inflammation – which is one of the major causes of aging.
When Your Chronological and Biological Age Don’t Match Up
The researchers noted that sleep apnea can skew the ratio between your chronological and biological age, but that it is possible to make a change – by improving your sleep patterns and having issues like sleep apnea diagnosed and treated. Their study showed that when sleep apnea is left unchecked, it causes inflammation and damage to organs. They added that inflammation is linked to negative changes in mood, behavior, metabolism, and heart health. It is also related to disease in the kidneys and eyes and can be a factor in cancer and erectile dysfunction.
The Problem with Sleep Apnea: You May Not Know You Have It
The signs of sleep apnea may be obvious. That is, you may wake up various times at night, or be woken up by your own snoring. Many people who have sleep apnea, however, don’t know it. This is especially true if they sleep alone and do not notice behaviors like snoring. Symptoms to watch out for include feeling sleepy and tired during the day, having headaches when you wake up, forgetting things, having mood changes and/or reduced interest in sex, and waking up with the sensation that your
throat is dry. If you have these symptoms, see a doctor; getting treatment promptly is a key way to avoid disease and premature aging.
If your doctor diagnoses sleep apnea, they will undoubtedly recommend a few key lifestyle changes. These include losing weight (if you are obese), quitting smoking and reducing or eliminating alcohol, and developing sleeping habits. Your doctor will also instruct you to sleep on your side since sleeping on your back makes it more likely that your tongue and soft tissues will block your airway. If you are used to sleeping on a firm bed to give your back support, a change of mattress may be necessary. Mattress reviews recommend specific beds  for side sleepers. These beds are usually made of memory foam latex or other materials that support all parts of the body equally so you don’t wake up with pain in the shoulder or hip areas.
Sleep Apnea Devices and Surgery
Your doctor may also recommend that you use a specific device at bedtime. This may be a breathing device or mouthpiece.
A continuous positive airway pressure machine prevents your throat from collapsing while sleeping by providing a constant flow of pressurized air down your airway. It brings oxygenated air from the machine and delivers the stream of pressurized air through a tubing hose and the CPAP mask. Meanwhile, a sleep apnea mouthpiece keeps the airway open by pushing the upper jaw forward. It reduces the air resistance in the mandibular region that causes snoring and sleep apnea.
Both aim at opening airways. One implant has also been approved by the FDA to help with sleep apnea. One of a small list of surgeries might be recommended if these efforts are unsuccessful. The list includes tonsil removal, maxilla or jaw surgery, and tracheotomy (the latter is a ‘last resort’ procedure).
Staying young and healthy is impossible to do if sleep apnea is interfering with your sleep quality. The good news is that often, making lifestyle changes can make a big difference in how you sleep. Specific devices, surgery, and even facial therapy can form part of a multifaceted approach aimed at ensuring that sleep equates to deep, restorative rest – the kind you need to live a long and healthy life.