So when 18 months ago my husband’s snoring became so loud and frequent it left me exhausted, we decided it was time for separate rooms on different floors.
The volume was muted, but Paul’s nocturnal sounds still kept me awake — with worry. His breathing was intense and noisy: wheezing, spluttering and choking that went on all night.
Dad Vader: Paul in his snoring mask which is treating his sleep apnoea, with his wife Anne Marie
I’d sometimes sneak upstairs just to check he was OK. He looked restless and uncomfortable, but was apparently fast asleep. Every morning he’d wake up tired, irritable and lacking in energy.
Paul ticked all the conventional ‘unhealthy’ boxes: he was 48; three stone overweight and stressed. Though no longer a smoker, he drank a little too regularly and exercise was limited to walking a short distance to the station to get to work — a desk-bound job as a computer systems administrator.
Neither of us was surprised when he was diagnosed with high blood pressure. But despite treatment, it didn’t seem to be improving and each month Paul would be given more pills to try.
He was just about to be signed off with yet another batch of high blood pressure drugs when the young locum doctor, standing in for his regular GP, reviewed Paul’s notes and started questioning him about his sleep patterns. Did he get a full night? Was he tired in the morning and throughout the day? Did he snore?
A few more questions led him to refer Paul to the sleep clinic at West Middlesex Hospital and six months later he was given an appointment.
I have to admit I was sceptical. Surely Paul’s snoring was just a by-product of being overweight. Did he really need a specialist to tell him that?
'The sleep specialist said Paul was one of the worst cases of apnoea he'd ever seen: he stopped breathing 88 times in the space of an hour'
But the hospital wanted to find out much more. Paul was given a blood test and cardiogram where they measured his heartbeat. He then settled down in a bed at the sleep clinic for overnight testing.
Attached to an ECG machine, his heart rate was recorded and oxygen intake monitored throughout the night. The results were worrying: Paul was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a sleep disorder that leads to pauses in breathing.
The condition is common — studies have shown 60 per cent of the over-65s have OSA.
It occurs when the muscle in the upper airway relaxes, causing it to collapse, so blocking the airways. As a result you momentarily stop breathing.
The brain then wakes you up, usually with a loud snore or snort, in order to breathe again. People with sleep apnoea generally snore. However, not everyone who snores will have sleep apnoea.
The condition can range from mild to severe. Some people may experience it during sleep and not be affected at all.
Doctors say that the periods of ‘stopping breathing’ become clinically significant only if they last for more than ten seconds each time and occur more than ten times every hour. The sleep specialist said Paul was one of the worst cases of apnoea he’d ever seen: he stopped breathing 88 times in the space of an hour.
My husband was struggling for breath every time he went to sleep at night.
Worth the wear: The mask may not be that comfortable, but it has improved Paul's breathing and lowered his blood pressure
The condition is much more than just an irritating night-time noise (at more than 55 decibels, Paul’s snores were comparable to rush-hour traffic): the sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during this type of sleep increase blood pressure and put pressure on the cardiovascular system.
Indeed, untreated OSA is recognised as a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and erectile dysfunction. Research has also shown a link with stroke. Left untreated, OSA can prove more immediately fatal: people suffering daytime sleepiness — another characteristic of the disorder — are twice as likely to crash their car as non-sufferers.
Weight is a key risk factor for sleep apnoea, as Dr Andrew Cummin, director of the Imperial College Healthcare Sleep Centre, explains: ‘The epidemic of obesity is increasing the prevalence of obstructive sleep apnoea because fat around the neck contributes to the narrowing of the airway at night.’
Family genetics could also play a part. Paul’s mother — who has never been overweight — is also known to snore. But we were astonished to learn that, despite my dismissiveness of the snoring as just a by-product of Paul’s weight, it could also have been making his blood pressure so dangerously high.
'The first night he wore the mask was comical: the children thought it was hilarious and insisted on calling him "Dad Vader"'
The link between lack of sleep and high blood pressure is not clear, according to Professor Gareth Beevers, spokesman for the Blood Pressure Association.
‘Obesity and high salt intake are key factors in raised blood pressure. Sleep or the lack of it could well be another,’ he says.
Like other experts, he would like more research into this potential link. But in the meantime, people with high blood pressure would be advised ‘to consider the possibility of obstructive sleep apnoea, especially if they snore and feel sleepy’, says Professor Mike Polkey, consultant respiratory physician at the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.
‘For these patients, treating the sleep disorder may result in being able to control blood pressure and also relieve daytime tiredness.’
This was certainly true for Paul.
The recommended treatment for OSA is continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP — this consists of a plastic mask that fits snugly over the nose and mouth and is connected to a machine that blows air continually into the back of the throat.
This keeps the airway open, helps maintain correct oxygen levels and, ultimately allows for a better quality sleep.
Some people can find wearing a mask uncomfortable or constricting and there is an estimated 20 per cent drop-out rate.
However, doctors say those who persevere find that their symptoms improve significantly.
Bedroom harmony: Her husband's treatment means Anne Marie can now get a good night's sleep as well
The sleep technician at the clinic fitted Paul’s mask to make sure it wasn’t loose or too tight, showed him how to attach it and let him take it home.
The first night was comical: the children thought it was hilarious and insisted on calling him ‘Dad Vader’.
I had to laugh, too — he did look very odd and initially the device was a rather intrusive bedtime companion.
But within a couple of days, Paul got used to it and, just a month on, we have all adapted.
He says he’s beginning to wake up feeling as if he has actually had a decent sleep — for the first time in years.
'My sleep is no longer disturbed by the unpleasant sounds of gasping and wheezing'
My sleep is no longer disturbed by the unpleasant sounds of gasping and wheezing, just the gentle hiss of air from the CPAP machine, which often lulls me to sleep.
It’s still early days, but Paul’s last visit to the GP was positive and his blood pressure had noticeably lowered in just four weeks — from a scary 170/115 to a far more acceptable level of 137/94 (the ideal is 120/80) — without him doing anything different except wearing the mask.
While it can’t be proven that Paul’s lowered blood pressure is directly related to the mask, common sense dictates it most probably is.
Furthermore, if my husband’s sleep issues had never been discovered he could have been on stronger and stronger blood pressure tablets for the rest of his life. Even worse, he might have ended up suffering a stroke.
Now we are hoping to finally be free of this downward health spiral. With more sleep, Paul should regain energy, start to exercise again and ultimately lose weight.
Changing his lifestyle a step at a time will hopefully lead to a permanent reduction in blood pressure and then he could throw away the pills for good.
It’s fair to say that my whole family are very grateful for the Star Wars Darth Vader mask.