A conference in Calgary devoted to the issue of sleep apnea opened on Friday.

An increasing number of Albertans are suffering from sleep apnea, a condition where people intermittently stop breathing at night, according to experts hosting a conference on the subject in Calgary starting Friday.

The two-day meeting organized by the College and Association of Respiratory Therapists of Alberta is meant to heighten awareness about the problem, said Linda Sutherland, director of operations for the organization.

"Sleep apnea — obstructive sleep apnea — is as prevalent as asthma. Anywhere from four to 10 per cent of the population have [it]," she said.

In apnea sufferers, their throat muscles relax as they fall asleep, obstructing their airways. If the condition goes unchecked, chronic oxygen deprivation can put them at risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Sufferers also don't get enough rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is needed for good health, Sutherland said.

The condition is becoming more common as obesity rates go up in the province. And because many people suffer from sleep apnea without being aware of it, it's becoming a public safety issue too, she said.


'These people can fall asleep at red lights, fall asleep while they're driving...' —Linda Sutherland, College and Association of Respiratory Therapists of Alberta

"These people can fall asleep at red lights, fall asleep while they're driving if they're long-haul truck drivers or bus drivers," she said.

Once diagnosed, sleep apnea sufferers can be outfitted with a special respirator to help them breathe clearly at night.

But continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy machines are expensive and not covered by Alberta Health, Sutherland said.

A shortage of respiratory therapists is also a problem in Alberta, she said, with patients often having to wait as long a two years for an appointment at a sleep clinic.