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The breakthrough helping older Australians live longer, healthier lives: Air.

Plenty of people call me old.
Plenty of people call me old. Like my wife whenever I’m complaining about café service or calmly giving instructions to NRL players on the TV; like my pre-teen grandkids when I ask what they’re watching on their phones; like the couple in the unit upstairs with their delightfully talkative small dog and second car that lives in the visitor’s spot; but I can’t use the word myself. It’s defeatist. I like the term ‘experienced’, and I’ve got 64 years of the stuff. But it’s a relatively recent experience that I want to share here.

Now I should say at the start that I’m not a ‘letters to the editor’ type of bloke. I have ideas and opinions, but I prefer to keep them in-house (literally within the four walls of my house, where my family and friends can’t avoid them, ha!). In a round-about way that’s one reason I felt I needed to write this. It occurred to me that people of our age don’t share our experiences very often (with people we don’t know well), either because we prefer to keep our business as our business, or we realise people have their own busy lives to lead so we assume no one would be interested. But if I’d been 30 years younger when this had happened, I would’ve spilled my guts on the facebook and twitter-grams in a flash.

Enough preamble. I’m talking about my sleep apnoea diagnosis and the CPAP device that quickly, quietly, and completely got rid of it.

You (and your better half) might be familiar with one of its common side effects: industrial strength snoring. Thinking about it now, one of the reasons my wife probably didn’t push me to take action earlier is that we (‘she’) chose the all too common route of separate sleeping arrangements. My wife got her sleep back and I slept (poorly) elsewhere. Problem solved? More like problem moved to the spare room.

The other reason for not addressing the problem is that age thing again. While I don’t say the word ‘old’, it’s a natural tendency to put any deterioration in how we feel, be it physically (energy levels) or mentally (alertness, memory etc), down to simply ‘getting old’. I was just fortunate that on a routine visit to the doctors to renew a prescription, I saw a GP who (unlike a few of his colleagues in the past) wasn’t content to do the same.

He explained what sleep apnoea is, how its effects were consistent with what I was feeling and how CPAP was an option to treat it. Even though this sounded better than the another main option (throat surgery that removes a bit of the back of your throat and/or tongue but isn’t guaranteed to be a permanent fix due to the tendency of the skin and tissue in the soft pallet area to grow back after being removed.*), I must have still showed some reluctance which I can only attribute to my God-given male inertia. In other words, even when things aren’t great, most blokes still fear change.

(*I pinched this description from a pamphlet at the GPs)

This hesitation disappeared when he told me about what he called the ‘secondary’ impacts of untreated sleep apnoea. They may be secondary in that they come after the primary ones (daytime tiredness and impaired cognition i.e. body and mind feeling like you know what), but they’re top of my list in terms of things to avoid. Apparently, the lack of deep sleep, and the stress this places on the body, increases your levels of cortisol. That’s the little hormone directly linked to artery inflammation. And you don’t need a pamphlet from the GP to know what that means: increased risk of heart disease and stroke. I didn’t work all my life to finally retire only for my organs to retire.

I pretty quickly agreed that it wouldn’t hurt for him to refer me to a sleep-testing centre in town. So I spent a night where my breathing and sleep quality was observed and measured. It confirmed I did suffer from sleep apnoea. I stopped breathing and basically choked, a couple of dozen times throughout the night. (On my next visit I got to watch the footage, with audio, and asked if they could make a DVD of it for my wife. They politely declined.) I spent a second night there, but this time wearing a CPAP mask to get the calibration and fit right.

I can’t do without my little magic box now. That was evident from the day I got it, but I had a recent reminder of just how much of a difference it makes in my life. For a bit of context, early on after getting my CPAP, I had some friends suggest that the new lease on life I was constantly raving about might be partly due to a placebo effect. That just the act of ‘taking action’ had snapped me out of something that was only in my head all along. I guess that thought had lingered with me, but it didn’t really concern me. If it was more magic box than medical device, I still felt different, better. Did it matter why?
Well a bit of freak gust last Saturday night took out some branches and our street’s power along with them. I spent my first night sleeping without my CPAP (or first night sleeping with my old foe, apnoea) in nearly a year. The result? Well, in addition to my wife (who sleeps by my side again, the spare room returned to its rightful role of storing junk) putting bits of tissue in her ears to block the noise, I woke up feeling only slightly better than I did the morning after my bucks party. That’s an exaggeration, but I guess after a year of good sleep, the lack of it hit me hard. I felt the difference, and it was huge. It’s also when I felt I should write down my experience.

If we look back on this precious resource called experience, our own life experience, how many times can you say that a situation improved by just ignoring it? By hoping things would change without doing anything to make the change. There might be a couple, we all get lucky sometimes. But there’d be many more where we wished we’d had our time over to act.

The action I (eventually) took, to get my sleep apnoea diagnosed and treated with CPAP, hasn’t just given me a better life, but if the doctors are right, there’s a good chance it’ll give me a longer one.
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