Dean McKnight was always tired. He constantly drank caffeinated sodas to get through the day. In his retirement, McKnight, 72, of Hollidaysburg found it difficult to feel energized.
"I was tired all the time. I drank about 30 bottles of Diet Pepsi a day. I was tired. I would get bored easily," McKnight said. "It was just a general feeling that I had to keep myself pumped up."
But, he never snored and didn't think he woke up throughout the night.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Sleep specialist Dr. Mehrdad Ghaffari (right) talks to Dean McKnight about his sleep disorder.
It wasn't until a few years ago that McKnight discovered he suffered from sleep apnea, a condition which caused McKnight to stop breathing every hour through the night, and resulted in sleep deprivation.
Sleep problems are common in seniors, although trouble sleeping isn't directly correlated with age.
Seniors need about as much sleep as young adults (seven to nine hours a night). Many seniors often sleep much less, whether they have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking early.
The National Sleep Foundation reports half of all seniors suffer from insomnia several nights a week.
"Sleep problems are quite common in elderly patients," said Dr. Mehrdad Ghaffari, medical director of the Altoona Regional Health System Sleep Institute. "The misconception is we think when we get older, we need less sleep. It's not true."
Seniors' sleep problems often stem from illnesses, medications or poor sleep hygiene.
Retirees who may not have many social obligations are more apt to stay up late or fall asleep in front of a computer or television. Such practices may result in a poor quality of sleep and possible sleep disruptions.
Medical conditions can cause insomnia, specifically depression, which greatly affects sleep, Ghaffari said.
Hip impairments, diabetes, heart attacks, COPD, prostate problems and incontinence can cause insomnia, as well as medications to treat the conditions, including blood pressure medications and steroids.
"These all can cause problems with staying asleep," Ghaffari said.
Poor health habits can also inhibit proper sleep.
Smoking can cause insomnia because nicotine stimulates brain activity, and caffeine can also greatly affect sleep because it stays in a body for 12 hours.
One of the most common causes of sleep problems for people of all ages is sleep apnea, which is more common among overweight or obese people, Ghaffari said.
Snoring, morning headaches and daytime sleepiness are signs of sleep apnea and are reason to contact a doctor.
Ethel Parker, 61, of Osterburg decided to see a doctor after she couldn't shake her daytime sleepiness.
She snored at night and was exhausted during the day. Even small amounts of physical activity caused her to nap.
"I've had sleep problems I don't know how many years," Parker said. "I wasn't sleeping. I was very tired. I just had no pep."
Parker visited the Altoona Regional Sleep Institute where doctors discovered she had sleep apnea.
In McKnight's case, the sleep apnea was discovered by a cardiologist he was seeing for heart problems.
"My cardiologist suggested a couple years ago that heart problems and sleep apnea go hand in hand," McKnight said.
Seniors with sleep apnea who go untreated are 2 times more likely to die in their sleep, Ghaffari said, which is why treatment is necessary.
"Many patients think this is their normal routine, and they are normal. Many people think it's the normal aging pattern," Ghaffari said. "It's not normal. Lack of sleep and problems falling asleep and staying asleep are never normal."
If seniors suspect they have sleep issues, they should seek out a sleep specialist, who may prescribe medications or behavioral therapies. Sleep apnea patients are often required to use a sleeping apparatus which helps ensure they do not stop breathing during the night.
McKnight and Parker cite favorable results from using the machine.
"I have more energy, more enthusiasm," McKnight said. "It just made a major change in my life. I have become an advocate of this thing, almost like a salesman for it. I think there's a lot of people that I truly believe have sleep problems like me, and they might not even realize it."
While McKnight was working as president of a local bank, he was energized and excited about his job.
Once he retired and life slowed down a bit, he began to feel the effects of not sleeping well. Once he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and started using the breathing machine, his quality of life improved immensely.
"Quite frankly, it was such a radical change, it was a little difficult to accept that this simple machine could make that much of a difference in my life," McKnight said. "There can't be any easier way to save your life. I really think the doctor probably saved my life."