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Apnea sufferers often awake tired

As awareness of apnea mounts, suspected sufferers are spending their nights under an infrared camera's watchful eye in hundreds of so-called "sleep labs" across America, sensors dotting their skin and scalp.

Eleven o'clock is "lights out." At 11:02 sharp, Navarro yawns. A needle swings wildly on a monitor humming softly in the next room. At 11:10 p.m., Navarro turns onto his left side, and a half-dozen needles jerk in response.

This night will be like no other for Navarro, a 32-year-old computer programmer. For the next seven hours, his every breath, movement and heartbeat will be recorded as he spends the night in a sleep disorders laboratory.

He is here because doctors think he suffers from sleep apnea, a disorder marked by loud snoring and interrupted breathing. Once considered relatively obscure, sleep apnea is stirring increased concern among physicians because it can cause severe daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, stroke and heart problems; serious cases can be life-threatening.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that sleep apnea is more common than once believed. The study found that 9% of women and 24% of men had sleep-disordered breathing; 2% of women and 4% of men in the middle-aged work force met the criteria for sleep apnea. That would make undiagnosed sleep apnea a major public health burden.

Depending on the severity of the apnea, treatment can include use of a night time face mask or even surgery. There's a less high-tech approach for those who snore or suffer apnea only while on their backs: sewing a tennis ball in the back of their pajamas tops so they will sleep on their sides instead.

Not surprisingly, roommates and spouses are often the first to spot potential apnea victims. Navarro is a longtime snorer; he can remember his college roommates waking him to request that he tone it down. His wife, Christine, grew worried when she noticed that he sometimes stopped breathing briefly during the night. She learned about sleep apnea from her doctor and urged her husband to get tested.

A video screen shows Navarro dozing peacefully. Pink computer paper moves steadily through the polysomnograph, a machine with 12 needles that records everything from his eye movements to heart contractions.

All night, monitors will record the needles' black tracks, paying special attention to those measuring Navarro's breathing. Sleep apnea victims have been known to stop breathing hundreds of times each night.

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