Sleep apnoea in the older adult: Pathophysiology, epidemiology, consequences and management

Tamar Shochat, Giora Pillar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Sleep apnoea is a breathing disorder in sleep usually caused by repetitive upper airway obstruction. Its primary symptoms include snoring, daytime sleepiness and decreased cognitive functioning. Risk factors for the condition include obesity, anatomical abnormalities, aging, and family history. It has been associated with hypertension, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases and increased mortality. The prevalence of sleep apnoea increases with age, although the severity of the disorder, as well as the morbidity and mortality associated with it, may actually decrease in the elderly. A decline in cognitive functioning in older adults with sleep apnoea may resemble dementia. Medical management of sleep apnoea rarely relies on drug treatment, as the few drugs (antidepressants and respiratory stimulants) tested for treatment have been found to be ineffective, or cause tolerance or serious adverse effects and complications. The treatment of choice for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure, a device which generates positive air pressure through a nose mask, creating a splint which keeps the airway unobstructed throughout the night. Weight loss significantly decreases or eliminates apnoeas. Oral appliances are used to enlarge the airway at night by moving the tongue and mandible forward. Positional therapy involves avoiding the supine position during sleep in patients who mostly have apnoeas while lying on their back. Surgical management may also be considered, although with great caution in the elderly, because of their increased risk of complications related to surgery. Surgical procedures include nasal reconstruction, somnoplasty, laser-assisted uvuloplasty, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, genioglossus advancement and hyoid myotomy, and maxillomandibular advancement for severe cases when other treatments have failed. As a last option, tracheostomy may be performed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)551-560
Number of pages10
JournalDrugs and Aging
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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