Apnea on the rise

Every night, millions of Americans snore and then fall silent -- but it's not the silence of a restful sleep finally taking hold.

Loud snores followed by total silence can be one of the signs and causes of sleep apnea -- and that silence marks the moments when they're not breathing at all.

These episodes can last from between 10 and 30 seconds to a minute or more, and they can happen hundreds of times a night. And a new study on the causes of sleep apnea shows more people have this frightening condition than ever before.

Up to 5 million Americans may be suffering from sleep apnea, including 1 in 6 of all men between the ages of 50 and 70, and nearly 10 percent of all women in that age group. In addition, 10 percent of men between 30 and 49 and 3 percent of women that age also have it.

All told, apnea cases could be up by as much as 55 percent over the past two decades, according to the new causes of sleep apnea study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The problem with diagnosing and treating sleep apnea is that many of the people who have it don't know it -- so they never even seek treatment.

Sometimes, the only sign is that you just don't feel as well-rested as you should after a full night's sleep. Other common warning signs can include a dry mouth, sore throat, and/or headaches.

If you have a spouse, you can take turns keeping watch to see if you can spot the signs of apnea (they are unmistakable, and the first time you see it in action can be terrifying). But the best way to get diagnosed is to spend a night in a sleep clinic.

There are a number of treatment options, including an oxygen mask you can wear at night, but they are noisy and uncomfortable.

There's a much better solution -- and that's to lose weight. Apnea is almost always linked to weight, and the new study pf the causes of sleep apnea finds that between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new cases are related to obesity.

Don't wait. Sleep apnea has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, dementia and more -- and we're learning of new risks all the time. Get yours taken care of now, before you discover any new risks the hard way.