Senior Health: Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Causes

By Donovan Baldwin

We hear the term “sleep apnea” quite often these days. Many of us have a friend or relative with it, but most of us have no real idea what sleep apnea actually is, or understand sleep apnea symptoms and causes. Knowing this is an important step on the path to understanding how to deal with the problem.

It is a very serious sleep disorder which affects over 18 million Americans and millions more in other countries. It’s a condition in which a person’s breathing is continuously interrupted during sleep. The breathing of a sleep apnea suffere can be interrupted for as few as 10 seconds to as many as 60 seconds or longer.

During each of these events, for the body to resume breathing the brain has to awaken the individual each time his or her breathing halts. This  nightly  cycle of breathing disruption/brain awakening can repeat itself hundreds of times during a single sleep period.

A person with sleep apnea is deprived not only of sleep, but of oxygen as well. If left untreated, the condition will only get worse. High blood pressure can develop as can other types of cardiovascular disease as a result of this nightly disruption of sleep and the flow of oxygen. As you can imagine, it can cause a lot of problems, but, keep in mind that sleep apnea can become so severe that it could endanger your life.

You should pay close attention to any appearance of sleep apnea symptoms and causes.

This is a condition which is dangerous and which should be treated by medical specialists trained in this field. They will begin by taking a history in which several pertinent questions will be asked. The answers to these questions may lead them to suspect sleep apnea, but, usually only a sleep test will determine if you have it. The test merely requires you to sleep overnight at a sleep testing facility where you will be monitored by machines and by medical personnel. Most health insurance companies will pay for this procedure.


Without a test, or the honest testimony of your mate, you cannot “know” that you have sleep apnea. However, there are symptoms of sleep apnea which can be a warning which tells you to get to the doctor.


The most obvious symptom of sleep apnea is a constant feeling of tiredness, dullness or grogginess throughout the day…even after apparently getting a “good night’s sleep”. Many people with this disorder will frequently fall asleep during daytime hours. This is because a person with sleep apnea does not really ever fall into a deep sleep and actually experience the healing and refreshing powers of sleep.

There are other symptoms associated with sleep apnea as well. Those associated with sleeping including profusely sweating during sleep, gasping or choking, unusually loud snoring and waking suddenly and/or frequently to catch breath.

When awake you may experience an inability to focus, concentrate and/or remember things. Sleep apnea can also cause simple, easily overlooked symptoms such as morning headaches and a sore throat or dry mouth upon awakening. Your may not even notice that your attention span may be shorter and your judgment may not be as good. You may experience mood swings or depression. Impotence and weight gain are also symptoms.

This is the possible start of a vicious cycle as one possible cause of sleep apnea is being overweight, and, as mentioned, sleep apnea can cause you to gain weight. Being overweight is also often a risk factor for such conditions as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and…impotence and erectile dysfunction…as is sleep apnea a risk factor for these conditions as well. Since the majority of sleep apnea sufferers are men, who are susceptible to heart problems, a man who suspects he has sleep apnea should get checked right away…and start a good weight loss program including regular exercise and proper nutrition. Remember, “proper nutrition” because diets don’t work.


Those with untreated sleep apnea can suffer other consequences…some very dangerous. These can include an increased risk of becoming involved in driving related accidents and a reduced ability to operate machinery or carry out work-related functions.


The word apnea is actually a Greek word meaning “without breath”. In the most common type of sleep apnea, the muscles inside the windpipe located at the back of the throat soften and as a result, they relax, causing a blockage inside the airway. Because these muscles support the tongue, tonsils or uvula, these body parts can cause the blockage which interferes with breathing. This form of sleep apnea is referred to as OSA or Obstructed Sleep Apnea.

While home treatment of even moderate sleep apnea is not recommended due to the health risks of the condition, there are some things which can help the sleep apnea sufferer. In obstructed sleep apnea, a sleep apnea exercise program can be of help, especially for those with a mild case.

Anothre type, Central Sleep Apnea, is a far less common form of sleep apnea, where there is no physical blockage of the airway. Instead, for some as yet unknown reason, the brain has difficulty sending the messages necessary to instruct the appropriate muscles to carry out the breathing function during sleep. A combination of blocked airways (obstructive sleep apnea) and loss of brain control (central sleep apnea) can sometimes occur simultaneously resulting in a form of sleep apnea called Mixed Apnea.

At this time, several factors are believed responsible for causing sleep apnea. Men aged 40 to 60 make up the largest risk group although post-menopausal women begin to increase in risk over their pre-menopause years. Being overweight is an aggravating factor for anyone, as are smoking, and the use of alcohol and sedative. Other contributing factors or indicators for sleep apnea may be an irregular sleep schedule, a family history, nasal congestion, snoring and problems with the tonsils, adenoids, tongue, chin, septum, vocal cords and more can all contribute to sleep apnea.


About Donovan Baldwin

I am a 68 year-old fitness fan and freelance writer. I am retired from the U.S. Army after 21 years of service and am a University of West Florida alumnus (BA Accounting 1973). For several years, I have been writing and publishing articles on many subjects with a concentration on health, fitness, exercise, and weight loss.
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