Snoring is one of the most common sleep problems, at least occasionally affecting about 90 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And while the subject of jokes, snoring can indicate a serious medical problem.
What’s more, snoring often worsens as we get older. There are several reasons for that, says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep specialist and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine:
1. Loss of muscle tone. As we get older, we tend to lose muscle tone, including in the upper airway. The soft palate in the back of the roof of your mouth, for instance, becomes more susceptible to vibration. And the movement of those tissues, including the uvula, is what we hear as snoring.
2. Weight gain. Aging, and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that often comes with older age, frequently results in extra pounds. Being obese or overweight goes hand in hand with snoring.
3. Alcohol. That nice glass of wine or beer at night makes snoring worse, since it relaxes the muscles even more.
4. Medications. Many people take an increasing number of medications as they age. Attempts to cure insomnia by taking a sleeping aid can actually increase snoring.
5. Hormonal changes for women. Post-menopausal women have lower levels of estrogen, which results in softer muscles in the upper airways.
When snoring is loud and accompanied by daytime sleepiness and a lack of feeling refreshed in the morning, it may be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.
“When I hear that story where the patient comes home from work and goes to sleep on the couch at 6 o’clock — that’s not, ‘Oh, how cute, they fell asleep’ — no,” Dasgupta says. “That could be a warning sign.”
Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which one’s breathing temporarily stops during sleep. That happens when the throat muscles collapse, the tongue falls back and the airway is blocked, according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. The condition, which can be life-threatening, affects an estimated 1 in 4 people over 60, it says.
Sleep apnea increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart problems, because when breathing is interrupted, blood oxygen levels abruptly drop. That strains the cardiovascular system, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with obstructive sleep apnea are also more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, Mayo says.
9 Ways to quiet your snoring — or your partner’s
1. Lifestyle change, including weight loss. That’s easier said than done, especially when conditions like osteoarthritis make exercise more difficult. But diet changes can help, too.
2. Stop drinking, especially at night.
3. Treat your allergies. They can play a major role in snoring.
4. Over-the-counter devices. One example of these, Breathe Right nasal strips, has won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
5. Dental devices. Like a mouth guard or orthodontic retainer, dental devices fit in the mouth to hold the lower jaw in a slightly forward position. That can keep the airway open to reduce snoring.
6. A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. This device supplies a steady stream of air pressure to keep the airway open.
7. Positional therapy. This refers to devices that keep a snorer sleeping on his or her side, rather than the back. Sleeping on the back makes snoring more likely.
8. Surgery. This is a last resort, but one that may be needed if you have medical issues that cause the snoring.
9. An at-home sleep study. If you snore, you may not need to undergo an expensive study at a sleep center. Home sleep studies are now available.