Sleep apnea has been linked to cardiovascular disease along with other health issues. Recently a new study, by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), has linked sleep apnea with the risk of dying from cancer.
The results show that low oxygen levels increase vascular and tumor growth. Mortality rates increase when sleep apnea and cancer or cardiovascular disease are present. Dr. Mehrdad Ghaffari, medical director of the Altoona Regional Institute for Sleep Medicine, emphasizes the need to seek medical attention for sleep issues.
"Twenty years ago, there wasn't much attention to treating sleep disorders with medicine," Ghaffari said. "Now if it's not treated, not only will daily life be affected but there could be severe health consequences."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Robert George of Duncansville chats with Dr. Mehrdad Ghaffari, medical director of the Altoona Regional Institute for Sleep Medicine at the sleep lab. George has been a patient at the sleep center for three years. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is characterized as the pausing of breathing that drops oxygen supply in the blood while sleeping. It can cause snoring or daytime sleepiness.
"Not getting enough oxygen while sleeping can lead to heart problems, strokes and high blood pressure. With the new link to higher cancer mortality, this should be the push for people to seek medical help," Ghaffari said.
Patients with the most common sleep apnea, those with 30 or greater incidents with less than average oxygen levels within an hour, are five times more likely to die from cancer than a patient without sleep apnea.
Ghaffari recommends taking the online sleep assessment that can be found on the Altoona Regional website. If the survey suggests seeking further medical assistance, patients can call the sleep center.
"If potential patients call the sleep center, our girls know how to handle their needs," Cathy Wilt, the manager of the sleep center, said. "Some health insurances require a referral from their family doctor. If that's necessary then we'll tell them; if not, we'll set them up for an overnight sleep study."
The Altoona Regional Sleep Center has four queen and two extra-long double beds in separate rooms. Each room has a computer and intercom linked to a center where technicians can monitor sleep patterns.
In the morning, doctors review the patterns and then either recommend another overnight sleep study or a treatment path with a follow-up visit to the daytime clinic.
Common treatments for sleep apnea include weight loss.
Ghaffari states that there is a national trend that links obesity and sleep apnea. And when a patient loses weight. most times the issue of sleep disorder will go away.
Other treatments include a continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP) which is the mask patients where when sleeping. There are also dental devices that can increase oxygen levels.
"Last year we served 3,400 patients, including the night sleep studies and the day clinic which includes follow-up visits. We have between about 27 overnight patients and 65 daytime patients a week," Wilt said.
Robert George of Duncansville has been a patient at the sleep center for three years. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea and sleeps with a full face mask on.
"In the beginning it was hard to get used to the mask but it was like riding a bike," George said. "Once I got used to it, it was just there and it's a part of my sleep."
George was motivated to make an appointment to make his wife happy. His constant snoring strained their relationship.
"When my wife brought to my attention that my snoring was unbearable, I realized I had to do something and a happy wife means a happy life," George said.
George suffered a heart attack at 50 and his dad was diagnosed with dementia. He's not hoping that the sleeping with an oxygen mask will limit health risks for himself and let him live a longer, fuller life.
"Even when I go fly fishing with my friends I bring my mask. It's very portable and they appreciate a quieter sleep," George said.