Sleep apnea—episodes of upper airway obstruction during sleep—is a common sleep disorder among adults over 50. It’s treatable, with breathing assistance devices and lifestyle changes, among other options, but a critical flaw in the way it’s diagnosed keeps too many individuals from seeking treatment, according to a recent study co-led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The study, published in Sleep Medicine, found that denial of treatment by insurers is misguided in up to 20 percent of cases based on the use of 1970s-era metrics that don’t reflect new understanding of the disorder.

“We’re rejecting people who should be treated for sleep apnea,” said senior author Michael Prerau, PhD, associate neuroscientist, the Brigham. “It’s going to be cheaper in the long run to treat these people than to treat the comorbidities that could develop.”

Sleep apnea joins insomnia as one of two diagnoses leading a growing epidemic of sleep disorders in older adults, a focus of research and clinical care within the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders and Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital’s Sleep Medicine and Endocrinology Center (see p. 33). Treating these disorders, note sleep experts, helps to prevent or reduce comorbidities such as depression, hypertension, and cognitive decline.

“Sleep disorders are treatable,” said Dr. Charles Czeisler, Director of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, the Brigham. “But a lot of people don’t see sleep deprivation as a serious medical condition. We’re in a society where we’re taught to be tough, and concern about sleep is seen by some people as a weakness.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Topics: patient safety, research and discovery, Patient Experience

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