Caring Currents

Safe Sleep Tips to Prevent Stroke

Last updated: Jan 16, 2009

If you recognize this snoring profile,  your husband is a super nice guy
Image by ninjapoodles used under the creative commons attribution license.

Many people over the age of 50 suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a disorder in which breathing gets interrupted during sleep. Folks who snore loudly often have sleep apnea, but the two are not identical; apnea is characterized by periods of not breathing that can last up to two minutes. You might recognize sleep apnea in a spouse or other family member if he starts suddenly during sleep and gasps for air, or if his breathing is irregular and loud. 

Experts have known for some time that sleep apnea can put people at risk for stroke. Now a new study published by the American Physiological Society shows why; it seems that apnea episodes disrupt blood flow to the brain, elevating blood pressure within the brain.The findings help explain why people with sleep apnea are more likely to suffer strokes and to die in their sleep.

All this is good reason to focus on preventing sleep apnea and making sure your  family members are as safe as possible while they sleep. Some tips:

  • Sleep on your side. Lying on your back increases the chance of obstruction to the airways. Special pillows and other remedies can help with this; the tennis ball trick is one strategy doctors suggest. (Put a tennis ball inside your pajamas so that it wakes you up when you roll over on your back.)
  • Elevate the head of the bed. Use a wedge pillow or put a pillow or towels under the mattress to tilt up the head of the bed 4 to 6 inches.
  • Don't drink alcohol, or cut back. The heavy sleep many people experience after drinking alcohol can increase sleep apnea.
  • Lose weight. Apnea is strongly associated with carrying extra weight, particularly in the upper body and neck, which can obstruct breathing.
  • Use a nasal dilator, Breathe Right nasal strips, or saline nasal spray. All of these help open nasal passages, making breathing easier.

If you think a family member may have sleep apnea, tactfully suggest he or she contact the doctor and get checked out. Studies show 90 percent of people with sleep apnea don't know they have it!