In sleep apnea, each pause in breathing — or apnea — can last from 10 to 20 seconds or more. This can occur 20 or 30 times an hour. and leads to brief drops in the oxygen levels in blood. It also results in poor sleep quality as a person moves out of deep sleep and into light sleep several times.
Without deep sleep, people cannot retain information. Their reflexes slow. They can’t concentrate, experience mood swings, suffer from morning headaches and feel irritable.
“Sleep is important for memory consolidation,” Tsai says. “It’s vital for the processing of information.”
There are two kinds of sleep apnea. The most common, obstructive sleep apnea, is a result of the tongue and soft palate blocking the airway. Central sleep apnea is caused by weak signals from the brain to the diaphragm. The snorts and choking sounds a person suffering from sleep apnea emits are a result of the restarts of normal breaths.
Sleep apnea is more common in older people and as many as 60 percent may suffer from it, says Dr. Alberto Ramos, co-director of UHealth Sleep Center and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “We lose muscle tone and we gain weight,” he adds. Both are risk factors for the condition.
But aging also brings a host of other problems that interrupt an older person’s sleep, even if they don’t suffer from sleep apnea. “Slow wave sleep, or what we call delta sleep, decreases as we age,” Ramos says. “And that’s what we need to feel refreshed the next day.”
Older adults take more medications, which may affect sleep. They also suffer more from pain because of chronic conditions, and may have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Aging also changes our circadian rhythms.
The good news is that seniors can be screened for sleep problems, including sleep apnea. If diagnosed and treated early, a person can enjoy deep, restful slumber. For those suffering from cognitive impairment, it may even slow the rate of mental decline.
“I don’t think I’ve recovered what I lost,” Smith says, “but I’m staying level. I’m not getting worse.”