"If people tell you that you have a distinctive snoring pattern -- you snore so loudly that you can be heard in the next room, but then you suddenly stop breathing to the point that it frightens them, and then you suddenly resume breathing with a snort or choking sound -- you may have sleep apnea," says Dr. Shepard. "Most often, the person you sleep with will bring this to your attention."
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when muscles that support soft tissues in the back of the throat relax during sleep, causing the airway to close. Respiration is momentarily cut off, and the level of oxygen in the blood drops. It's considered a serious medical condition because sudden drops in blood oxygen levels raise blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. In addition, the repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible -- for patients and their bed partners.
One study reports habitual snoring in 44 percent of men and 28 percent of women. Obstructive sleep apnea affects approximately four percent of women and nine percent of men between the ages of 30 and 60 years.
"Until proven otherwise, we should simply double the numbers for the prevalence of sleep disorders in the United States and say that a problem we have called "the largest health problem in America" is twice as big as we previously thought," write William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., and Clete Kushida, M.D., Ph.D.; Sleep Disorders Research Center; Palo Alto, Calif.; in an accompanying editorial. "We should also keep at the front of our minds that for every snoring patient we evaluate and treat, we are improving the lives of two people."