To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: Part 1

Did you know that sleep could kill you?! (Or at least, cause a lot of serious health problems?)  Neither did I.  Of course, I’ve been familiar with the term “sleep apnea” for quite some time, but until now, always just regarded it as a fairly benign problem related to snoring that impacts sleep quality.  My significant other had a better grasp of the dangers of snoring —  he is acutely aware that his occasional loud snoring has made me want to strangle him at times 🙂

All kidding aside, what I am now talking about are physical consequences of sleep apnea that are much more serious than spousal irritation.   Several research studies suggest that sleep apnea can lead to organ and tissue damage (particularly those that have high oxygen intake requirements) and can also lead to chronic problems like high blood pressure, as well as metabolic disorders like Type II diabetes. Lots of info is out there and can be uncovered by doing a simple google search, but here are a couple of interesting sites that give good summaries.  Here is a rather technical paper on the topic: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/107/12/1671.long, and here is a much easier-to-read description: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/sleep-apnea/living-with-osa/health-consequences.

But here’s the aspect of sleep apnea that I’ve become most interested in, over the past couple of weeks:  sleep apnea can cause optic neuropathy!  If you will recall, my number-one medical concern right now is the thinning of the retinal nerve fiber layers (RNFL) in my eyes.  (More details can be found in this post, and the OCT scan results showing the thinning is given in here.)   A few weeks ago, I came across the following story, which instigated my further research on the topic: http://www.eyejob.co.il/vision-loss-while-he-slept.   Note:  I see that the link to this article unfortunately is broken, although it was working just fine a week ago.  I hope that the link is only temporarily broken, because the story was quite fascinating.  From what I recall, the story was about a middle-aged man who noticed serious vision field loss in one of his eyes. None of his doctors were able to determine the underlying cause for his vision loss until an OCT scan was done, which revealed serious thinning of the RNFL.  But that finding still did not explain why his RNFL had deteriorated.  As the man and his wife were about to exit the doctor’s office, the wife in jest said something like “well, if you can’t fix his vision, maybe you can fix his snoring?!”.  This fortuitous humor (at her husband’s expense) led to a sleep study, which revealed that the man’s optic nerves were suffering oxygen deprivation from sleep apnea.  The guy was promptly treated for his sleep problem, so as to stop further vision damage. Who would have thought that snoring could lead to blindness?!

With these new insights, I’ve decided to pursue a sleep study, to see if sleep apnea might indeed also be the source of my thinning RNFL.  My consultation with a sleep clinic was yesterday, and I have an over-night appointment at what the doctor jokingly referred to as the “Four Seasons Hotel” in February, for the full evaluation.  More details will follow in a future post.  It would be great if there were a simple fix for my eye problem.  Sleep apnea is mitigated by wearing a mask that pushes air into one’s nasal passageways.  Wearing the mask is probably not the most romantic way to be seen in bed, and I’m sure it does not get high marks for comfort, but wearing a mask  would be a hellova lot better than taking daily injections of fire for the foreseeable future.

On an entirely different note, my SO and I will be on our way to the American Astronomical Meeting in Long Beach, CA tomorrow, taking the scenic route, driving along the Big Sur coastline.  I’m looking forward to both the pre-conference mini-vacation and the week of science activities!  I’ll be sure to mention any interesting snippets regarding what’s new in the world of astronomy, in future posts.  Until then,  I wish you sweet, snoreless, dreams!

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