It may be merely annoying or a sign of something worse
By Emily Gurnon | Photo: Getty Images
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone,” British novelist Anthony Burgess reportedly said. Who hasn’t either been robbed of a night of peaceful sleep or been banished to another room because of snoring?
It is one of the most common sleep problems, at least occasionally affecting about 90 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And while the subject of jokes, snoring can indicate a serious medical problem.
Why Snoring Increases As We Age
What’s more, snoring often worsens as we get older. There are several reasons for that, says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep specialist and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California:
- Loss of muscle tone As we get older, we tend to lose muscle tone, including in the upper airway. The soft palate in the back of the roof of your mouth, for instance, becomes more susceptible to vibration. And the movement of those tissues, including the uvula, is what we hear as snoring.
- Weight gain Aging, and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that often comes with older age, frequently results in extra pounds. Being obese or overweight — particularly in the neck area — goes hand-in-hand with snoring, Dasgupta says.
- Alcohol That nice glass of wine or beer at night, which you may indulge in more often as you get older, makes snoring worse, since it relaxes the muscles even more.
- Medications Many people take an increasing number of medications as they age. In what may seem a cruel twist of fate (at least for your bed partner), an attempt to cure insomnia by taking a sleeping aid can also increase the propensity for snoring. That’s because insomnia medication causes muscles to relax and depresses the respiratory drive, Dasgupta says.
- Hormonal changes for women Post-menopausal women have lower levels of estrogen, which helps with muscle tone. But losing the estrogen means softer muscles, including in the upper airways.
When Is It More Than Snoring
When snoring is loud and accompanied by daytime sleepiness and a lack of feeling refreshed in the morning, it may be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.
“When I hear that story where the patient comes home from work and goes to sleep on the couch at 6 o’clock — that’s not, ‘Oh, how cute, they fell asleep’ — no,” Dasgupta says. “That could be a warning sign.”
Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which one’s breathing temporarily stops during sleep. That happens when the throat muscles collapse, the tongue falls back and the airway is blocked, according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. The condition — which can be life-threatening — affects an estimated one in four people over 60, it says.
Sleep apnea increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart problems, because when breathing is interrupted, blood oxygen levels abruptly drop. That strains the cardiovascular system, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with obstructive sleep apnea are also more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, Mayo says.
And, Dasgupta notes, resulting drowsiness during the day can lead to periods of napping at dangerous times, such as while driving.
9 Ways to Quiet Your Snoring — Or Your Partner’s
There are, fortunately, a few ways to get better sleep, whether you are the snorer or the bedmate. Dasgupta offers these nine options:
- Lifestyle change, including weight loss Dasgupta says he always suggests this first. Of course, it’s easier said than done, especially when conditions like osteoarthritis make exercise more difficult. But diet changes can help, too.
- Stop drinking, especially at night.
- Treat your allergies. They can play a major role in snoring, Dasgupta says. Rhinitis, or hay fever, causes inflammation in the nasal passages. That means “you’re going to be a mouth-breather, and you’re going to snore even more,” notes Dasgupta.
- Over-the-counter devices One example of these, Breathe Right nasal strips, has won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, Dasgupta says. The strips are designed to open the nasal passage so there is less obstruction. But if the obstruction is farther down in the airway, such as near the throat, they probably won’t work, he says.
- Dental devices Like a mouth guard or orthodontic retainer, dental devices fit in the mouth to hold the lower jaw in a slightly forward position. That can keep the airway open to reduce snoring. The devices are custom-made by a dentist and are covered by many medical insurance plans, according to the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine.
- A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine This therapy consists of a device, worn as a mask or nose piece, that supplies a steady stream of air pressure to keep the airway open. It is designed for obstructive sleep apnea, but may occasionally be used by individuals who merely want to treat their snoring.
- Positional therapy This refers to devices that keep a snorer sleeping on his or her side, rather than the back. Sleeping on the back makes snoring more likely. You can try simple fixes like buying a wedge pillow or sewing a tennis ball in the back of your nightshirt. There are also FDA-approved devices that attach around the waist to discourage snoring and apnea; ask your doctor about them.
- Surgery This is a last resort, Dasgupta says, but one that may be needed. If you have medical issues that cause the snoring — such as enlarged tonsils or a deviated septum — surgery can address those. Another option is implanting small rods in the soft palate to strengthen it and reduce vibration. One such surgery is called the pillar procedure. It is a minor outpatient surgery.
- An at-home sleep study If you snore, you may not need to undergo an expensive study at a sleep center, Dasgupta says. Home sleep studies are now available. A doctor prescribes the test, which lasts for one to three nights, when obstructive sleep apnea is suspected.