Sleep: The Killer

It's true.  We all know sleep deprivation robs us of health and energy.  But did you know it can also kill?

It's called sleep apnea and it sneaks up on you in the middle of the night, especially if you are overweight, male, black or Latino.  Sleep apnea is a disorder that is characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing throughout the sleep cycle, experts say.  Sometimes you even stop breathing.  That's where the death part comes in.  According to experts, those with this disorder can stop breathing anywhere from 10 seconds to whole minutes and can occur from five to 30 times -- a night?  An hour.

Experts estimate about 12 million in the U.S. have it, including one in 10 kids

Most people who have it don't even know it, though their partners do. It often results in heavy snoring or something worse, sleep paralysis, where people become so afraid of falling asleep that they can't, leading to fatigue, lack of alertness, depression, even liver failure, according to experts. It can affect memory and learning and at its most severe, lead to heart attacks and stroke.

People think it's just a thing that you have to worry about at night, but it also causes all kinds of problems during the day, including job-related injuries and car accidents, reports.

Sleep apnea comes in a variety of flavors. What happens when you have obstructive sleep apnea is that your tongue, tonsils or other tissues in the back of the airway cause an obstruction.  With central sleep apnea, the brain doesn't always signal the body to breathe. Even sleeping on your back is a risk because "gravity can pull tissues in the back of your throat down," webmd notes.

Think alcohol might help?  Fuggedabbout it.  Drinking can actually relax the muscles in the back of the throat, making it easier for the airway to be blocked.

During the day we don't gasp for air.  That's because our breathing muscles are active, keeping our airways open.  It's at night, when the muscles relax, that our airways can start to constrict.

So, how to fix it?  Lose weight.  Learn to sleep on your side.  Or try one of the devices made to correct this problem.

The reason I know so much about this is that my husband, Larry Hirsch, a dentist in Rego Park, Queens, 85-04 63rd Dr., NY, has been studying it in preparation for helping patients with this very problem.  To research it fully, he did a sleep test himself and, found to have apnea (I could have told him that), he's now wearing a modified MRD as he puts them together for patients.  Physicians must prescribe the devices first.

And believe it or not, the medical practitioners to see about all this is, indeed, your dentist.  That's because one of the devices that could help isn't easily tolerated by most people.  The C-PAP is a mask hooked to a machine that blows air through the nostrils.

But a newer type of unit, the mandibular repositioning device (MRD), pulls your jaw forward to open up the airway.  If a patient is found, through a sleep test administered by a physician, to be lightly or moderately "apnic," a dentist can create and provide the MRD, which moves the jaw forward, allowing the mouth to open, letting in more air.

Surgery?  That works for some, especially kids (like my son) who have big tonsils that also can block airways.

It's not the end of the world.  But it's certainly risky and unpleasant (not to mention the movement to couches or another bedroom by many spouses who just can't stand the snoring).  So if you suspect you might have sleep apnea, get checked and think about one of these solutions.  You'll sleep better at night.  Sweet dreams.


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