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5 Surprising Things You Should Know About Sleep Apnea

Are you a chronic snorer, or do you sleep next to one? You’ve probably heard of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes you to snore—and stop breathing—throughout the night. But sleep apnea does more than just make you saw logs.

Here are five surprising things everyone should know about sleep apnea.

1. Excess weight is the main cause of sleep apnea—but it’s not the only one

Excess weight is the most common cause of sleep apnea, due to fat deposits in the mouth and throat area that can block the flow of oxygen as you sleep.

But there are a few other triggers that aren’t quite as well-known, including:

  • Having a narrow airway or large tongue, tonsils, or uvula
  • Having a small jaw or large overbite
  • Having a larger neck (17 inches or more in men, 16 inches or more in women)
  • Being age 40 or older
  • Genetics
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Nasal congestion
  • Medical conditions, such as heart disorders
  • Certain medications, like opioids
  • Diabetes—around 40% of people with sleep apnea have diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Foundation. The reason? Increased blood sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance and a lack of sleep.

2. There are different types of sleep apnea

Three, to be specific: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA), and a combination of both.

OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea, and it happens when your tongue, tonsils, or other tissues in the back of your throat block your airway. For people with OSA, sleep is restless and marked by shallow breathing and then pauses in breathing lasting 10 to 30 seconds. These pauses are often followed by jolts, coughs, snorts, and gasping sounds as the person tries to start breathing again, which can be quite alarming for anyone else in the room.

CSA is a little different. It occurs when the brain fails to send a signal to the muscles to breathe.

Sometimes, obstructive and central sleep apnea go on at the same time. This is called complex sleep apnea syndrome.

3. Snoring is not the only symptom of sleep apnea

Loud, chronic snoring is definitely the strongest sign of sleep apnea. The tissues at the back of the throat vibrate as they struggle to let air through, and the result is snoring (followed by those snorting and gasping sounds).

But not all snorers have sleep apnea. These are some of the other symptoms of sleep apnea and the sleep deprivation that comes with it:

  • Feeling excessively sleepy during the day
  • Falling asleep during the day—especially at work
  • Severe morning headaches
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Slower reaction times
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • High blood pressure

In serious cases, depression, cardiac arrhythmia, and stroke can be symptoms of sleep apnea.

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4. Sleep apnea can decrease life expectancy

Besides causing broken, interrupted sleep, the condition can be life-threatening. If left untreated, sleep apnea can decrease your life expectancy by several years, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, diabetes, and even heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke. And since it often leads to weight gain, sleep apnea is linked to metabolic syndrome, which can raise your risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Sleep apnea also affects your concentration levels and organizational skills. As a result, sufferers have a higher chance of being involved in motor vehicle accidents.

5. It’s possible to have sleep apnea and not know it

The Sleep Foundation estimates that 18 million American adults (6%) have sleep apnea, and another 12 million (4%) are undiagnosed. This applies mostly to obstructive sleep apnea and women. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found women often fail to report symptoms such as snoring, insomnia, and fatigue to doctors.

Sleep apnea is more prevalent among people in the 55-60 age bracket, but it can happen to anyone, even kids. In many cases, children outgrow the disorder and go on to have healthy sleep patterns.

If you’re struggling with sleep apnea—or suspect you might have it—chat with your doctor as soon as possible. There is a range of treatment options available, including continuous positive airway pressure machines (CPAP), dental devices, nerve stimulation, and surgery.

Katia Iervasi is a writer for the insurance team at Finder. In addition to dozens of mortgage and personal finance pages, Katia has written more than 250 insurance articles that help readers understand the intricacies of policies across life, car, health, and more.