There is surely no more appropriate moment than World Sleep Day to discuss obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition worthy of greater attention that has not been blessed with the catchiest of names. Yet symptoms of sleep apnoea such as snoring and daytime fatigue are familiar to most, and the potentially serious consequences of this condition if left untreated are ones that we would normally do everything in our power to avoid. It has, for instance, been shown that people with undiagnosed sleep apnoea are worse at driving in a straight line than someone who has consumed alcohol; accidents can and do happen with fatal consequences.
Sleep apnoea is a condition where the muscles in the throat relax in a sleeping person resulting in the airways narrowing, causing the person to stop breathing. As a consequence, they wake up (often without knowing it) frequently throughout the night in order to regain breath. This repeated process can put a serious mental and physical strain on the affected person. It is estimated that around 4% of men and 2% of women have sleep apnoea, with one study stating that approximately 90% of people with the condition remain undiagnosed. But the true number is still unknown, largely because of low awareness of the condition, both among the general public and also among healthcare professionals.
People with sleep apnoea are at increased risk of a number of serious conditions including stroke, heart failure and one study estimates that untreated sleep apnoea can reduce life expectancy by 20 years. Sleep apnoea is also proven to cause high blood pressure and has been associated with depression. The symptoms are often missed, and patients are treated or tested for a separate condition. For example, people might be tested for diabetes and if their results are negative might not get a diagnosis at all. Heavy snoring, one major indicator that someone might have sleep apnoea is often dismissed as just that: he or she is simply a heavy snorer. As a consequence, people living with sleep apnoea go for unnecessarily long stretches living in a netherworld of exhaustion and related ill health.
Awareness of sleep apnoea is further complicated by a common misperception among those who do know something of it: that sleep apnoea is the preserve of overweight, middle-aged men. While weight and sex do increase the likelihood of being at risk from sleep apnoea, this stereotype obscures the significant risk that it also poses to women and children.
At its most serious, undiagnosed sleep apnoea has caused death on the roads, and can have a devastating effect on professional and social lives. Such outcomes are a severe and unnecessary cost to both the individual and wider society. Indeed, sleep apnoea is a comparatively straightforward condition to treat effectively, and it would reduce NHS costs and significantly improve the quality of life for those affected if it is given greater recognition by all.