As you get older, sleep apnea can become more difficult. It can become harder to fall asleep and, once you’re asleep, to stay asleep.
Sleep patterns also change — older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
While sleep problems are common in the elderly, the amount of sleep you need as you age is no different than the amount you need during your younger adult years, according to the National Institutes of Health: seven to eight hours per night.
Many things can cause sleep disturbances, including drinking alcohol; chronic disease, such as heart failure; depression; some medications; not being active enough; pain from conditions such as arthritis; stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine; the need for frequent urination; neurological conditions; and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep apnea is one type of sleep disturbance that increases with age. It is characterized by chronic snoring, pauses in breathing that can last a few seconds to minutes, or shallow breathing, which results in poor quality sleep and taking in less oxygen during sleep.
In addition to making you tired and cranky the next day, poor sleep can also contribute to illness and disease. For example, sleep disturbance has been linked to a two-to-threefold increase in the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Sleep apnea, in particular, has been associated with a higher risk for dementia, possibly due to oxygen deprivation. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women over the age of 65 who suffered from sleep apnea were twice as likely to develop dementia within five years. Previous research has shown that providing oxygen therapy to patients with Alzheimer’s disease or sleep apnea can slow cognitive decline.
Sleep apnea has also been shown to increase the risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular mortality in seniors and more than double the risk of stroke in older adults.
The good news is that sleep apnea is treatable. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) — which places a mask over the mouth and nose and gently blows air into your throat as you sleep, keeping the airway open — has been shown to eliminate the added risk for cardiovascular mortality attributable to sleep apnea.
Mouthpieces that keep the airway open can also help to alleviate mild sleep apnea, as can lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. Severe sleep apnea, however, generally requires a type of treatment device or surgery to widen breathing passages or remove excess tissue from the airway.
If you have sleep apnea, or suspect you do, speak with your healthcare provider about being tested and finding an appropriate treatment.