Sleep Apnea: Hidden Illness For Women Can Lead to Real Dangers

ABC News' Claire Shipman, Catherine Cole and Matthew Rosenbaum report:

Cathy Rossi, 57, had never had never had trouble sleeping, but when she started experiencing mental blank outs on her morning drive to work she knew something was wrong.

"I was on my way to work and I was on one interstate and next thing I knew I was on another road and I had no idea where I was," she said.

After a barrage of medical tests Rossi was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a diagnosis she initially had trouble accepting.

"I didn't snore, I didn't have any of the typical symptoms of sleep apnea," she told ABC.  "Anytime you see anything on television…it's always some big guy sawing logs."

These are common misconceptions, according to Dr. Grace Pien, assistant professor at the Sleep Medicine Division of the Perelman School of Medicine. She told ABC News that sleep apnea was initially believed to be a disease that almost exclusively affected men, only rarely showing up in women. However, newer findings have refuted this, showing that for every two or three men who have the condition, roughly one woman is also affected.

According to Pien, the consequences of this misconception are evident. "The symptoms we think about with sleep apnea (such as snoring and daytime sleepiness) are those that were first described in men."

Woman may have far subtler symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue, which lead to frequent misdiagnoses.  "Women oftentimes are worked up for other things, for hyperthyroidism, for inactive thyroid, or for depression or other types of medical conditions before somebody says oh, you know maybe this woman does have sleep apnea," Pien said.

This is especially the case for menopausal woman. They are not only one of the most at-risk groups of women for developing sleep apnea, but they often write off the symptoms to the changes going on in their bodies.  "A woman might just think…it's normal and maybe once I get through menopause this will get better and her doctor might actually think the same thing," Pien said.

So what are the signs that a woman may have Sleep Apnea?  Pien can point out a few. "During the day she might just feel run down, tired, fatigued, if she has a few minutes to herself she wants to doze off even if she did get a good night's sleep the night before." Other women "may notice that they wake themselves up feeling as if they are gasping for air or choking," and they may "report that they wakened, but they're not entirely sure what awakened them."

Sleep apnea is associated with long-term health problems. According to Pien "We know that sleep apnea especially if it's severe can increase the risk for having various types of heart disease including heart attacks and even dying from a heart related condition.  There also appears to be an association with stroke."

If you think you may be suffering from sleep apnea "get it checked out," advises Rossi, who after treatment tells ABC that she feels "like a whole new person." "It doesn't take that much to have a test done" she said "Everybody owes it to themselves to have it checked out."