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Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by snoring and interrupted sleep throughout the night, might be more common than originally thought, the Lung Association of Saskatchewan says. ((Courtesy Jose M. Holguin))

Thousands of Saskatchewan people are now waiting to be assessed for sleep apnea, a condition a new study says is more common than previously thought, the Lung Association says.

Until recently, it was thought that about 16 per cent of Canadians were at risk of sleep apnea — which has symptoms that include loud, chronic snoring, restless sleep and even moments of choking during the night.

However, a recent Statistics Canada study of 9,000 Canadians came up with a higher estimate: about 26 per cent of the population is at risk of having sleep apnea.

'My wife actually told me that I do stop breathing for extended periods at night.' — Scott Nicholls

That was a surprise, said Brian Graham, president and CEO of the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, adding that within the province, the numbers may be even higher.

That's because there is believed to be a correlation between sleep apnea and obesity — and Saskatchewan's obesity rates are higher than the national average.

Waiting lists

Graham estimates that around 3,000 people are waiting to be tested for sleep apnea in Saskatchewan, with some facing a possible two-year wait. A big problem is the shortage of respiratory technicians available for sleep apnea testing, he said.

That's bad news for people like Regina's Scott Nicholls, who has symptoms of sleep apnea and is planning to seek treatment.

"My wife actually told me that I do stop breathing for extended periods at night," Nicholls said.

Nicholls said the prospect of waiting many months to get help concerns him.

"Something that affects this many people, if there is a waiting list that long, there is some attention that should be paid to this," Nicholls said.

Sleep apnea dangers

According to the Lung Association, sleep apnea has been linked to a host of societal problems, including poor job performance, marriage failures and even car crashes caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Extrapolating other sleep apnea studies to Saskatchewan, it's believed there could be some $30 million worth of related car accident damage per year in the province, according to the Lung Association.

Treatment for sleep apnea can involve using devices that keep air flowing through the nose to stop snoring and prevent the airways from collapsing. Other options include a dental appliance or even surgery.

Although some people wait many months to be assessed, people in high-risk occupations, such as truck drivers, are able to get in quicker, the Lung Association says.

Also good news from the Saskatchewan perspective, Graham said, is that the province has two sleep clinics — one in Saskatoon with six beds and one in Regina with four — and they have top-of-the-line equipment.

Despite the wait times, "we're the envy of the other provinces," Graham said.