By McCamy Taylor
In the 19th century, people could see, smell, and taste that their water was clean. Then Louis Pasteur showed them what they could not see, smell or taste — microbes that caused disease. Once made aware of the danger, people were willing to invest in sanitation services, sewage treatment, water filtration…
In the 21st century, people do not know what happens when they are unconscious can kill them. That’s because it only happens when they are unconscious. I am talking about sleep disorders.
Sadly, more of you probably know your LDL cholesterol than know about your own sleep. More of you have probably asked your significant other “Are there any funny looking moles on my back that might be cancerous?” than have asked “Do I show signs of restless leg syndrome?”
Sleep disorders are one of those tricky medical conditions that do not announce themselves with a great big billboard. They’re more like high blood pressure — sometimes you get symptoms, more often you don’t.
Once upon a time, no one knew their blood pressure. Now, you can get it checked in the grocery store. Almost every adult knows that blood pressure is important. So is cholesterol. So is blood sugar. So is not smoking. If you want to avoid a heart attack, you pay attention to these things.
For instance, there’s an independent risk factor for heart disease besides obesity: sleep apnea. And there’s an independent risk factor for car wrecks besides being under the influence: sleep deprivation. People who are sleep deprived do not know it because they are unconscious when their bodies are failing to get restful, restorative sleep.
When folks reach 40 and the sleep disorder they inherited kicks in, they do not know that they have a sleep disorder. They know that they have high blood pressure, depression, fibromyalgia, erectile dysfunction, low back pain, migraine headaches—and they can no longer perform the necessary functions of their jobs so they make mistakes and get fired.
I have lost track of the number of patients whom I treat at a public health clinic for the uninsured who lost their jobs and insurance due to a sleep disorder that their old doctors never suspected and who are able to successfully appeal their disability denial and get Medicare once they prove to the judge that there really is something wrong with them. I have lost count of the number of people who think that I am psychic, because I look over their medical record and ask “Do you snore or stop breathing at night?” No, I am not psychic. I just have first hand experience with what it is like to have an unrecognized sleep disorder that costs you your career in the prime of your life.
People who develop sleep disorders in middle age should not lose their memory, their energy, their concentration and finally their jobs because doctors are so bad at diagnosing sleep disorders. If they and their doctors recognized the first clues about a sleep disorder and started treatment while the patient was still employed with insurance and did not carry the stigma of long term unemployment, a big chunk of the American workforce would continue to be productive beyond Medicare retirement age—and we would never have to worry about Medicare and Social Security going bankrupt.
As we move closer to the goal of Cradle to Grave Insurance for all of us, those who pay the bills will have an incentive to keep us healthy. People with undiagnosed sleep disorders accumulate thousands of dollars a year in unnecessary medical tests and treatments. Increasing physician and public awareness of sleep disorders will keep you healthier and save them money.
Eventually, you will see pamphlets like the ones that the American Cancer Society used to hand out with the warning signs of sleep disorders. One day, they will know that snoring can be a sign of a serious medical condition that is treatable — if found before you die in a car wreck or of a stroke. Eventually, High School Health classes will teach sleep hygiene. Eventually, no one would dream of NOT telling you “You snored and stopped breathing last night” anymore than they would dream of NOT telling you “Don’t eat that potato salad. It was left out all night. There is no telling what kind of bacteria are growing on it.”
Raise sleep disorder awareness. Keep our roads safer. Keep middle aged workers at their jobs longer. Reduce the strain on Social Security and Medicare. It’s gonna happen. The only variable to the equation is when.