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Everyone enjoys a good night's sleep, yet for many of us the recommended eight hours is a rare luxury. However, UCLA sleep experts caution that being well-rested should be viewed not as a luxury but as a key part of overall health.
"Sleep has an enormous impact on society and health," says sleep-medicine specialist Alon Avidan, M.D., M.P.H., director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. He notes that excessive sleepiness can result in cognitive difficulties and memory problems, as well as severely impairing one's alertness and ability to drive, which may result in accidents. Chronic insomnia, which affects approximately one-in-10 Americans, is associated with higher rates of depression. However, when the insomnia problem is addressed, mood often significantly improves. Obstructive sleep apnea, a common but frequently undiagnosed disorder that is often the source of daytime sleepiness, increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke when left untreated.
Modern society has contributed to the problem of sleeplessness, says pulmonologist and sleep specialist Michelle Zeidler, M.D. "The increase in work hours, commute time and time spent on various technologies after hours has curtailed the amount of time we spend sleeping," she notes. While many people feel they can get away with less than the recommended seven-to-eight hours of sleep each night, "a good night's sleep needs to be considered preventive medicine, just like a healthy diet and exercise," Dr. Zeidler says.
Although sleep problems are common - and increasingly so with age - many physicians fail to ask their patients about it. Anyone experiencing difficulty getting adequate sleep or feeling sleepy during the day should not hesitate to raise the issue during routine visits, the experts say.
Sometimes getting eight hours of sleep per night isn't enough. Feeling excessively tired during the day even after ample shut-eye can be an indication of sleep apnea, particularly among those who snore. As many as one-third of patients with a history of snoring have sleep apnea, and if the snoring is characterized by gasping for air, the likelihood is substantially higher. This is not a condition to be ignored, notes Ravi Aysola, M.D., pulmonologist and sleep specialist. It not only wreaks havoc during the day as a consequence of poor-quality sleep, but it can contribute to serious and potentially fatal medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease.
"Sleep apnea should be considered in all patients with risk factors for cardiovascular disease," Dr. Aysola says. He points out that although obesity is a major risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, up to a third of all patients with the disorder are not overweight. There are several options for treating sleep apnea, including oral appliances and, in some cases, surgery. Although some patients experience discomfort with the nighttime masks that are the most effective treatment for sleep apnea, the majority of patients are able to acclimate to the therapy, often after initial adjustments, Dr. Aysola says.
"It's just in the last couple decades that we, as medical professionals, have learned to appreciate the negative impact of sleep disorders on a person's health," Dr. Aysola says. "The medical evidence now proves what our mothers have always known to be true: A good night's sleep makes us healthy and happy."
The UCLA Sleep Disorders Center performs overnight sleep studies on patients suspected of having sleep apnea, as well as those who may have narcolepsy or a condition such as abnormal movement at night. "The bottom line is that sleep disorders can be as serious as any other major health problem, such as diabetes or heart disease," Dr. Avidan says. "But what many people fail to realize is that treatment for sleep disorders is available and can lead to improved quality of life."