Why are Sleep Apnea Diagnoses on the Rise?

For years now, health professionals have been sounding the alarm: Sleep apnea is on the rise, and it's threatening public health. Those warnings bear out in the data: An estimated 22 to 29 million Americans—about 12 percent of the adult population—suffer from sleep apnea, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. That's up from estimates of three to seven percent as recently as 2008. One study from nonprofit organization FAIR Health showed an 850 percent increase of sleep-apnea healthcare claims across the U.S. from 2014 to 2017.

Worse, millions of sleep apnea sufferers don't even know that they're suffering from the condition. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that, across the U.S., 80 percent of people with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea remain undiagnosed. The problem is particularly prevalent among minorities. Almost one in four African-Americans may suffer from moderate to severe sleep apnea, Reuters reported, but in a recent study, nearly 95 percent of African-American apnea sufferers were undiagnosed and untreated.

Much-needed attention boost for sleep apnea diagnosis

The steep rise in sleep apnea sufferers—and correspondingly lax levels of diagnosis and treatment—traces back decades, but the issue has been getting a much-needed attention boost more recently, as high-profile athletes have shared their own struggles with the disorder.

Houston Astros pitcher Josh James publicly shared his sleep apnea diagnosis, the health struggles that led to it and CPAP treatment plan that followed. Mets first baseman Dominic Smith did the same, telling The New York Times in early 2019, "I swear I was just suffocating." Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen has been vocal about his apnea, too—and about how important his diagnosis was and is. "It's a big deal," he told Buccanneers.com in 2018. "If I wouldn't have gotten diagnosed, there is no chance I'd be sitting here … the highest paid center. I wouldn't even be in the league anymore. I would have fizzled out after probably my third year. It saved my career."

Sleep apnea causes vary among patients

Although studies have shown several demographic trends in sleep apnea sufferers—including higher prevalence with African-Americans, and with men—it can affect just about anyone, and is tied to a variety of causes. Like many of the around 90 distinct sleep disorders, sleep apnea causes range from things we can control—like alcohol use, smoking and excess weight—to ones we can't, like genetic predisposition and the general muscle atrophy (including throat muscles) that can come with advancing age. For some, solving sleep issues can be as simple as changing habits. For others, sleep disorder diagnosis and intervention are the best way forward.

Don't be among undiagnosed sleep apnea sufferers

A message that vocal sleep apnea sufferers like James, Smith and Jensen are helping to get across: If you're struggling with sleep, seeking medical help can be the first step toward finding the right treatment, restful sleep and better health. "Your doctor can do a sleep study, checking your breathing while you sleep in a laboratory or attached to a monitoring device at home," said Stephanie Watson, executive editor at Harvard Women's Health Watch. "It's important to get an objective measure like a sleep study, because the treatment you select will depend on how severe the sleep apnea is."

During a sleep study, specialists document how your body behaves while you're sleeping, with anything from an electroencephalogram that measures brain waves to an electrocardiogram that measures your heart rate. The data they gather will feed into helping them understand whether a sleep disorder diagnosis is warranted, but the key piece of info they're looking for, in relation to sleep apnea: an AHI, or apnea-hypopnea index, measuring the average number of apnea experiences—a complete breathing halt for 10 seconds or longer—that occur inside an hour. An AHI above a five will usually lead to a mild sleep apnea diagnosis; above 15 would be moderate; above 30 is considered more severe.

With an understanding of the sleep disorder you're dealing with—and, if applicable, a sleep apnea diagnosis that leads you toward the right treatment—you and your doctor can address the next steps toward healthy, healing rest. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea and prescribed CPAP treatment, a SoClean Automated PAP Cleaner & Sanitizer Device might be a welcome way to make your daily routine simpler, and better.