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Research into sleep apnea

The root of the problem can be in the size of the base of the tongue, or the width of windpipe, or in the workings of the brain, or a combination of other physical factors.

For as long as he can remember, Ed Belfrey has had a monstrous snoring problem. On camping trips his friends used to force him to sleep in a separate Winnebago. His wife first moved to a separate bed, then to a separate bedroom. A stranger in an airplane once belted him with an umbrella.

Belfrey, who lives in Huntington Beach, is a typical victim of a physical malady known as sleep apnea. Less well-known than sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and insomnia, apnea is a problem encountered by people who breathe badly in their sleep. Most of these people are older men, some of whom have weight problems. Nearly all have the fitful, roaring, terrible snores that people tell stories about.

What apnea sufferers do is wake up hundreds of times every night, for periods ranging from a few seconds to more than a minute. In each case, something disrupts the patient's breathing, and the body reacts by waking up the patient. After two or three normal breaths, the patient usually falls back to sleep without realizing anything has happened.

Added up, these episodes are what leave apnea sufferers feeling tired. In the last decade, medical researchers have tied apnea to "daytime sleep attacks," night sweats, blackouts and "automatic behavior," such as sleepwalking, serious morning headaches, feelings of confusion, and an absence of dreams.

And if anything, the news is getting worse. Though doctors stress there are still more questions than answers associated with this condition, evidence pointing toward serious health risks is piling up.

So Belfrey went to the doctor. He underwent the standard battery of sleep tests, in which his breathing, heart rate, and other functions were measured over the course of a night. Those tests established Belfrey as apneic.

While visiting the hospital, Belfrey said he also heard himself snore for the first time, while listening to tape recordings. The snore was an ugly, irregular thing, starting and stopping, then exploding again as Belfrey briefly awake, sometimes rolling over and waving his arms.

Though treatments for apnea sometimes include surgery --tracheotomies, once standard, now are accompanied by occasional operations to remove obstructions or widen the breathing passage --Belfrey got off more easily. Each night, he now wears a mask over his face, which connects him to a pumping mechanism. Air is pumped into his throat as he sleeps, killing the both the snoring and the daytime sleepiness.

Next: Sleep apnea can cause brain dysfunction