Sleep Apnea in the Elderly

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where breathing is briefly interrupted many times throughout sleep. The term “apnea” is referring to a pause in breathing of at least 10 seconds. This disorder impacts millions of people of all ages around the world and is often undiagnosed. However, it is more common in older people as found by a study done by the National Institute on Aging and reports that more than half the respondents over age 65 said they have sleep problems and daytime sleepiness. 

The most common trait of sleep apnea is the lack of breathing while sleeping. Those who have this disorder may not get an adequate night sleep because their breathing stops and starts repeatedly throughout the night. When a person has difficulty falling to sleep, staying asleep, and not getting the deep sleep necessary, it can result in a poor quality of life and increase the health risks in elderly people. However, with the right testing and treatment plan, it is possible to get a good night’s sleep again so that overall health for the senior can be vastly improved.

In This Guide

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two main types of apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Those with either type of apnea will temporarily stop breathing at least 5 times each hour for a minimum of 10 seconds at a time. Even if a person is asleep, they must gasp for breath in order to start to breathe again.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common type of apnea, and it is caused by the airway being blocked or obstructed. Usually the obstruction happens when the muscles in the throat and air passage relax during deep sleep and causes the soft tissues in the back of the throat to collapse. This decreases or cuts off the air supply to the lungs causing breathing to stop for a short period of time.

sleep apnea

Central Sleep apnea is a less common form of apnea caused by faulty respiratory control in the brain. Those that suffer from this type of apnea fail to get the signal from their brain to breathe. As a result, they may have several episodes every night and miss valuable, restful sleep.

There are many things that can increase the risk of either type of apnea like:

• Small upper airway: Large tongue, uvula, or tonsils can also contribute.
• Obesity: Overweight patients have a larger portion of fat in their neck that restricts the airways.
• Age: The elderly are at a higher risk, because muscle tone weakens with age.
• Alcohol use or smoking: These can restrict air flow or slow the brain processes.
• Certain Ethnic groups: African-Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific-Islanders are at greater risk.
• Genetics: Sleep apnea can run in families.

Sign & Symptoms

Since sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed for many years, many people who suffer from it don’t even know it until there is a crisis. In an elderly person, it might be mistaken for symptoms of other things like medication side effects or because of body aches and pains. Those that don’t sleep with someone else might go many years without being aware that they stop breathing in the night when they sleep.

The biggest sign of apnea is snoring, and, if a senior snores, they should be checked out by a doctor. Some of the other symptoms are:

• Depression
• Irritability
• Extreme daytime sleepiness
• Morning headache
• Difficulty concentrating
• Falling asleep while doing important things like driving or working


The first thing any senior should do if they suspect sleep apnea is to see a doctor. The most common way to diagnose it is by doing a sleep study. This is done by sending the patient to a sleep center where they monitor normal functions of the body like eye movement, sleep state, airflow, oxygen levels, and more. A sleep doctor not only determines if there is apnea, they can also determine the severity, and treatment can sometimes be started while at the sleep center.

After other things have been considered, the treatment of choice for sleep apnea in seniors is a continuous positive airway pressure device or CPAP. This machine has a mask that covers the mouth and nose and blows continuous air into the back of the throat and keeps air passages open all night long. Most people find immediate relief after the first night’s sleep with a CPAP machine. Some seniors might also find it easier to sleep with the CPAP in an adjustable bed where they can elevate their head to help with breathing, and there can also be the extra benefit of putting their feet up for other medical issues.

Sleep Apnea

There are ways to treat the apnea by making simple life style changes. These changes might include:

• Dental appliances to reposition the jaw
• Weight loss
• Alcohol avoidance
• Smoking cessation
• Side sleeping

For severe cases, surgery to remove whatever is obstructing the airway may be considered when all other options have failed to help.

Risks of Untreated Sleep Apnea

When a senior faces the battle of sleep apnea, it can lead to a greater risk of other, more serious illnesses if it’s not diagnosed and treated properly. These risks can include:

• High blood pressure
• Heart arrhythmia
• Congestive heart failure
• Stroke
• Diabetes
• Depression, anxiety, or personality disorders
• Dementia

Seniors typically have more health challenges that they must learn to handle. However, when there is a concerted effort made towards proper diagnosis, treatment, and healthy lifestyle changes, they have a much better chance of a long and fulfilling life.

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