An Ottawa-based sleep specialist says many people in the region suffer from sleep apnea without knowing it, and people with symptoms should be checked to avoid potentially serious health problems.

Dr. Elliott Lee works at The Royal Mental Health Centre, where he treats a number of patients struggling from different sleep disorders. The most common among them is obstructive sleep apnea.

Rob Parks sleep apnea patient diagnosed Ottawa

Rob Parks was urged by his wife to get a sleep test, and he says he's glad he did. (CBC)

‚ÄčApnea is a disorder characterized by pauses in breath during sleep. It has been linked to serious health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cognitive problems.

Diagnosing patients can be difficult, Lee said.

Sleep test needed for diagnosis

In 2009, about 858,900 Canadian adults 18 years and older told the Public Health Agency of Canada that they have sleep apnea.

The agency also found three out of four Canadians reporting sleep apnea (75 per cent) were 45 years and older. The prevalence of reported sleep apnea in adult men was nearly double that in adult women.

"Ninety per cent of people who have it are [not diagnosed], so this is an issue," Lee said. "People just attribute it to, I'm tired, I am overworked, I am a little depressed, it is just that time of year or whatever ... but it really is a priority because it can have significant consequences if left untreated."

Rob Parks didn't know he was suffering from the disorder until his wife pushed him to get a sleep test. The procedure often involves an overnight visit to a hospital, where specialists monitor the patient's sleep patterns and vital signs.

Parks went for a test at Ottawa's Queensway Carleton Hospital for an overnight stay at the sleep laboratory. He learned he stopped breathing 77 times an hour.

"I was at a high risk so they actually put me on a machine right away," Parks said.

Machine keeps airway open

A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine is commonly prescribed to patients suffering from apnea. The use of air pressure allows for people to maintain an open airway.

Parks says he's grateful he was tested. He no longer experiences midday fatigue.

"You just feel like you're not tired anymore," Parks said. "You feel fine right throughout the day."

Dr. Elliott Lee The Royal Mental Health Centre Ottawa sleep apnea specialist

Dr. Elliott Lee, a sleep specialist, treats patients with sleep disorders at The Royal Mental Health Centre. (CBC)

Lee said daytime sleepiness, gasps for breath and snoring are some of the most common warning signs for people who may be dealing with sleep apnea. He said people should speak to their family doctors first if they have ongoing concerns.

Lee also says sleep deprivation is a growing problem that comes with a hefty price tag.

"People don't realize how impaired they are when they are sleep deprived," he said.

In 2010, Statistics Canada found 46 per cent of Canadians cut into the time they spend sleeping in order to keep up with their lives.