Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person briefly but repeatedly stops breathing at night. There are believed to be 40 million Americans with sleep apnea, but it is difficult to say because the condition is frequently undiagnosed. The biggest single cause of sleep apnea is being overweight obesity. In fact, an estimated three fourths of people with sleep apnea have no knowledge of their condition. However, obesity isn’t necessarily what leads to apnea. In fact, people with large necks frequently get it despite being of average weight—a man with a neck larger than 17 inches around, or a woman with a neck larger than 16 inches, is in danger regardless of weight.
A person with sleep apnea can’t get a good night’s sleep—as breathing intermittently stop, the person wakes up, not so completely as to experience this wakefulness, but enough to interfere with a proper rest. That means that the person never truly gets the benefit of the restorative properties of sleep, and wakes up in the morning still tired. As with any other type of sleep deprivation, this pattern can lead to poor focus, poor memory, and walking around in a fog. The breathing difficulties also mean loud snoring, which, is sometimes the only indication that anyone notices for quite some time. Apnea can also lead to sexual dysfunction and depression. Because the oxygen supply to the brain is being interrupted, sleep apnea can also cause stroke, high blood pressure, or heart problems.
While a thick neck is a predictor of apnea, weight is a more common contributing factor. Doctors recommend that patients who are showing signs of apnea—especially those who are formally diagnosed with the condition—lose weight. A recent study found that people with sleep apnea who cut calories over four months had lower blood pressure and fewer instances of apnea while sleeping. Another study found that people with sleep apnea also tend to have elevated blood sugar levels which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. This is further evidence of a link between diabetes and sleep apnea, both conditions that have been found to be associated with obesity. Sleep apnea itself may be contributing to the blood sugar levels, the study suggested.