ASK THE EXPERT: Sleep apnea can be detrimental to your health

Sleep apnea is a common and potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts as you sleep. Although sleep apnea is treatable, it often goes unrecognized. Untreated sleep apnea can be dangerous and detrimental to your health, so it’s important to see a doctor if you suspect that you or a loved one might have it.

Q. What is sleep apnea?

A. Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain — and the rest of the body — might not get enough oxygen, which could lead to other serious health problems.

Q. What are symptoms of sleep apnea?

A. It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur during sleep. To find out whether you exhibit symptoms of sleep apnea, ask your partner or record yourself during sleep. Major symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, waking up with a choking or gasping sensation, long pauses in breathing and daytime sleepiness after a full night of sleep. Other symptoms include morning headaches, forgetfulness, mood changes and recurrent awakenings or insomnia. If you notice any of these symptoms or have seen symptoms similar to these in a loved one, you should consult a physician.

Q. What are risk factors for sleep apnea?

A. Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, including children, but there are certain characteristics that put people at higher risk of developing the sleep disorder. Men and those who are overweight or over the age of 40 have a higher likelihood of developing sleep apnea. If you suffer from fastroesophageal reflux disease or have a nasal obstruction, you are also at higher risk of having sleep apnea.

Family history is a big risk factor for sleep apnea because studies have shown that heredity plays a role in the sleep disorder. Individuals who have sleep apnea family histories or who possess any other risk factors should consult a physician.