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Tufts Public Health » Sleep » Sleep Awareness Month

Sleep Awareness Month

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Daylight Savings Time has come and gone, and so has an hour of sleep. It might not take very long to adjust to losing an hour of sleep, but some people lose hours every night.

March is Sleep Awareness Month, and the Tufts Office of Public Health & Professional Degree Programs is reminding the Tufts community that sleep is in integral part of maintaining health.

While there are many different sleep disorders, one of the most common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. Breathing pauses, or “apneas”, last for at least ten seconds when muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open. These pauses can cause night after night of fragmented, interrupted sleep.

What causes OSA?

There are several causes of OSA, such as being overweight, smoking, consuming alcohol, or having a small upper airway, small jaw, large overbite, or large neck size. Those over age 40 and of African-American, Pacific-Islander or Hispanic ethnicity also have an increased risk of having OSA. OSA may also be genetic, as it often runs in families.

Symptoms of OSA

OSA often goes undiagnosed, but there are many indicators that a person may be suffering from the condition. Since apneas can cause significant interruptions in sleep, those with OSA often experience excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, as well as difficulty staying asleep. Indicators of OSA may also be present during sleep, and witnessed only by others rather than by the person with the condition. These symptoms may include loud snoring and abrupt awakenings followed by shortness of breath.

Effects of OSA

While the immediate symptoms of OSA may seem minor, they can lead to serious health consequences:

  • Apneas can cause low blood oxygen levels, eventually leading to hypertension or heart disease. People who constantly suffer from apneas have a higher risk of stroke, congestive heart failure, and death from vascular diseases.
  • OSA can cause difficulties with both attention and staying awake during the day, leading to drowsy driving and an increased risk of falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Patients with OSA are more likely than those without OSA to experience complications from surgery. During recovery, patients are usually sedated and lying on their backs. Unfortunately, this recovery regimen can cause OSA patients to experience more breathing problems.
  • Being overweight or obese can put one at risk of developing sleep apnea, but sleep apnea may also cause weight gain and/or difficulty losing weight. Daytime fatigue often makes patients lose interest in exercising and remaining active. Lack of sleep can cause increased appetite, leading to more weight gain. OSA patients experience difficulties with insulin levels (the hormone that controls blood sugar), putting them at risk for Type II diabetes.

 

Treating OSA

For those with mild OSA, simple changes in lifestyle (i.e. weight loss, alcohol and tobacco cessation, etc.) can be an effective treatment. Moderate to severe OSA may require more aggressive forms of treatment like assistive breathing devices or oral appliances that keep the airway open. If all other treatments fail, OSA patients may opt for surgery to enlarge the airway that blocks upper air passages and causes sleep apnea.

If you suspect that you or a loved one might be suffering from OSA, it is vital to consult a doctor in order to avoid the complications that can come with this sleep disorder. To learn more about sleep apnea, check out the National Sleep Foundation website or visit the Tufts Medical Center’s Center for Sleep Medicine.

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