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STEINBERG: As if aging weren’t bad enough, along comes sleep apnea

A mask worn by sufferers of sleep apnea.
| Courtesy of Provena Mercy Medical Center

Maybe you’ve noticed them too. The telltale elastic marks, red lines on the faces of portly gentlemen. I was puzzled the first few times I saw them, in the morning, at the train station, on the street. Then it hit me:

Mask strap marks. From CPAP machines.

“CPAP” stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” It is the primary — though not only — treatment for sleep apnea, a condition where a sleeper’s throat closes and he — sufferers are overwhelmingly men — stops breathing, for up to two minutes.


It’s bad to stop breathing. Sleep apnea leads to fatigue, of course, but also ailments from depression to heart disease.

The problem is growing. The Centers for Disease Control conducted a 10-year study; in 2005, they found 3.7 percent of men had sleep apnea. Ten years later, 8.1 percent had it, though the researchers couldn’t tell if more people are developing the condition, or just more are aware they have it.

When I learned I have sleep apnea in 2009, it was initially a relief, because I thought I was dying. Exhausted all the time; some days my knees would buckle. I figured it had to be my heart. But the heart folks found nothing wrong. OK, cancer then. I went in for a colonoscopy. The doctor who administered it said I didn’t have colon cancer, but pointed out that I stopped breathing during the procedure and might want to get tested for sleep apnea.

A sleep test is a stop on the stations of the cross of middle age. You arrive at a “sleep center” at 9 p.m. and a technician puts electrodes over your chest, your face. I caught sight of myself in the mirror. “A bad look,” I muttered.

Trailing wires, you slide into bed and try to sleep while strangers study you through a window. It’s like a scene from a science fiction movie.

By 4:30 a.m. a technician told me she had enough data: my apnea was “severe.”

At a follow-up appointment, I was led into a room filled with mannequin heads, their noses or mouths or both covered with blue-tinged clear plastic masks attached to ribbed hoses. Did I say science fiction? More like a horror movie.

I was certainly horrified, by the indignity of it, by the marginal medical zone the sleep center occupied — not a hospital, but a clinic. It felt disreputable. After a second night at the center, with a mask this time, I received a briefcase with a machine that puffed air into my throat to keep it open. I set it up on my night table.

My wife tried to put the bright spin on her husband’s humiliation. “It’s like sleeping with a fighter pilot!” she chirped.

How I hated that mask. I’d wake up at night, suffocating, and rip it off. I kept going back to the sleep center, for adjustments to the machine, or new masks; so often that finally, exasperated, my doctor said, “You know, if you lost 30 pounds, your sleep apnea might go away.”

That sounded like a plan. I lost 30 pounds in 2010, and the apnea receded. Losing weight isn’t a panacea — thin people also get sleep apnea. But it worked for me. As much as I’m reluctant to share embarrassing medical conditions in the newspaper, the thought that it might help somebody else is too great to resist.

Mentally ill man to speak

Speaking of which. The Kennedy Forum combats the stigma of mental illness. Since I’ve been very public discussing alcoholism, a kind of obsessive mental disorder, they’ve invited me to kick off their “Mind Matters” speaker series on Wednesday, Aug. 2 at 8 a.m. at Ocean Cut, 20 W. Kinzie. Tickets are $25, which might seem a lot, but you get breakfast. Since their work is so important, I’ve waived my usual speaker’s fee, so I’m out far more than you, and both of us are supporting something truly worthwhile. They’ve sold most of the tickets already — Johnson & Johnson is the sponsor — but some remain, and if you want to back a good cause and hear what I hope is an inspirational speech, please consider attending. For tickets call 312-532-4881 or email kris@thekennedyforum.org.