One of the problems of recognizing that someone has sleep apnea is that it’s a disorder that the afflicted person rarely realizes they have. That’s because sleep apnea occurs at night, during sleep, and usually it takes someone else to witness the disorder — and then convince the sleeper they have it — before action is taken.
One of the key symptoms of sleep apnea is snoring that ceases periodically during sleep as the person jolts awake, gasping for air. Even though it involves those periodic waking episodes, the person with the sleep apnea rarely realizes they have a problem. They may even deny that they snore when others witness the event and comment on it.
But people who snore and deny doing so on waking, even after being confronted by others, are not necessarily in denial. That’s because sleep-disordered breathing and sleep apnea can actually cause amnesia. Since memory consolidation occurs during sleep, when that sleep is repeatedly disrupted, then memory suffers. The snorer truly doesn’t remember making all that noise, they don’t remember that they stopped breathing (known as apnea), and often they don’t remember that they woke up. To them, the only symptoms are daytime sleepiness and an increasing lack of mental alertness.
Kevin is a good example of what I’m talking about. He had no idea he had a severe sleep apnea problem until he went on a campout with family. Kevin was in his 50s and overweight, but since he was single, no one had ever witnessed his snoring or nightly waking events.
Then one night on that campout, during which he shared a cabin with his brother, the brother was awake to witness Kevin snoring very loudly and waking up many times gasping for air. The brother even watched Kevin sleep because he was growing concerned that each break in breathing might be signaling that Kevin had taken his last breath.
The next morning, however, when his brother told him he “snored like a bear” and that he often jolted awake, gasping for air, Kevin thought he was joking. Since he didn’t witness the episodes himself Kevin just shrugged off his brother’s concerns.
When Kevin came to the Julian Center for a cleaning, he mentioned the incident to the hygienist, who brought it to my attention. We sent him for a sleep test, which revealed that he was experiencing 87 interruptions in his sleep each hour — on a scale in which a value over 45 is considered extremely severe sleep apnea. But even at that dangerously high level — waking more than once a minute during sleep — Kevin didn’t realize he had a serious problem. And even when his brother pointed it out to him, Kevin didn’t remember the episodes so he didn’t seek help.
Kevin’s sleep apnea was so severe that he could have died in his sleep from a sudden heart attack, and it would have been declared a cardiac event. No one would have identified the event as stemming from sleep apnea — another misdiagnosed statistic.
If you have been told you snore, or you are witnessing a loved one snore night after night, it’s time to take action. Take the questionnaire on this site to determine if you are a candidate to be treated for Sleep Apnea.