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Undiagnosed Sleep Apnea a Serious Danger

According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled "Increased Prevalence of Sleep-disordered Breathing in Adults," 5.9 million American adults have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but 23.5 million remain undiagnosed.

Sleep apnea has made headlines in recent years, bringing awareness to the dangers of the condition. For example, when actress Carrie Fisher died last year, sleep apnea was listed as one of the leading causes of death.

Sleep Apnea Concerns in the Transportation Industry 

Sleep apnea is the suspected cause of at least 10 accidents over the last 17 years involving trucks and trains investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Two of the more recent accidents involving trains occurred in the New York City area when engineers plowed into stations, injuring more than 100 people in each accident. According to recently released reports and interview transcripts, both engineers suffered from severe undiagnosed sleep apnea. Neither can recall the moments preceding the crashes.

In 2013, an engineer who was later discovered to be suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea was involved in an accident that killed four people.

At one point, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were pursuing regulation that would require all rail and truck companies to test their drivers for sleep apnea due to the number of deadly crashes that have occurred in recent years. Last month, the agencies announced they would no longer be pushing for these new regulations and that each individual company would be responsible for deciding whether or not to test their employees.

Obstacles in Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

One of the greatest struggles in diagnosing sleep apnea is confusion about symptoms, said Dr. David Buck, DDS, an innovative epigenetic orthodontist in Lynnwood, Washington.

"Symptoms such as daytime sleepiness, fatigue and irritability can be symptoms of many medical conditions," he said. "Snoring, which is one of the most common symptoms, isn’t usually taken seriously. It’s often seen as an annoyance or even a humorous topic and is rarely brought to the attention of the patient’s medical provider."

Many people aren’t even aware they snore unless a roommate or bedmate brings it to their attention. Even for those with apneic episodes where breathing is stopped, the body usually only wakes up just enough to resume breathing and the person wakes up the next day with no memory of the incident. 

There’s no simple test for sleep apnea, either. Doctors can evaluate symptoms and screen patients to determine their risk, but in order to truly diagnose someone with sleep apnea, an overnight sleep study is needed.

"Untreated sleep apnea increases a patient’s risk of death by nearly four times the normal amount," Buck said. "In addition to the dangers associated with daytime drowsiness, it also increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and many other serious medical conditions."

 

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