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money on fireSleep apnea affects roughly 22 million Americans, making it as common as type 2 diabetes. But unlike diabetes, it’s a whole lot easier to ignore despite the impact it can have on your physical and mental health – not to mention your relationships, your job, and your chances of being in a driving accident.

Now, a new study shows the impact untreated sleep apnea can have on your bank account.

By examining a randomly selected and nationally representative sample of thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, researchers at the University of Maryland and Columbia University calculated just how great a financial burden undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has for older Americans. 

The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that patients with undiagnosed OSA sought medical care more frequently and at higher cost before their diagnosis than patients without the disorder.

Compared with the control group, those with untreated sleep apnea had greater health care utilization and costs across all points of service, including inpatient, outpatient, emergency and prescription medications in the year leading up to their sleep apnea diagnosis.

Lead author Emerson Wickwire, associate professor of psychiatry and medicine at the U of M explains just how much this adds up to:

Sleep disorders represent a massive economic burden on the U.S. healthcare system. Medicare beneficiaries with obstructive sleep apnea cost taxpayers an elderly woman visiting doctoradditional $19,566 per year.

A good chunk of that cost, of course, goes to treating the wide array of health problems that have been linked to OSA, including a raised risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and depression. As the researchers noted,

Older adults with OSA also are more likely to have multiple chronic diseases than those without OSA, which likely increases the contact of patients with OSA with the health care system.

In a related commentary, Qinglan Ding of Purdue University, and Meir Kryger of Yale New Haven Medical Center, who was the first to diagnose and report on obstructive sleep apnea in North America, note that the findings confirm that “patients with OSA are heavy users of health care 5 to 10 years before diagnosis.” Thus, they insist, 

Because early diagnosis and treatment of OSA would improve quality of life and functional ability in older adults and should reduce [health care utilization], policymakers and health care leaders should consider ways to improve OSA screening and treatment measures as well as education of clinicians in detection of OSA.

Part of the problem is most folks who have OSA don’t even know it, even when you’re experiencing symptoms such as snoring, daytime sleepiness, or signs of bruxing such as a sore jaw or other head or neck pain upon waking, excessive tooth wear, or scalloping along the sides of your tongue. 

The good news is that if you have – or suspect you have – OSA and you’re looking for a solution that doesn’t require CPAP, your dentist can help

older adults smilingShould you have mild to moderate sleep apnea, you may be a candidate for an oral appliance, which is now recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine for adults who are CPAP intolerant or prefer an alternative.

Based on your needs, a nighttime appliance can be specially designed for you that can be much more comfortable yet still effective in keeping your airway open, allowing you the chance for restful, restorative sleep. 

That’s crucial for oral and overall health, and your wallet as well.

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