Every night the same ritual plays out in Nancy Rothstein’s bedroom. She goes to sleep before her husband does, and then, a few hours later, she’s awakened by the grating sound of his snoring. “I usually lie there for a while and try to decide whether I have the energy to move to another room,” she says. “I’ve tried earplugs, which are uncomfortable, so most nights I end up playing musical beds. Some nights it’s just simpler to start out in a different room, so I can get a good night’s sleep.”
Multiply that scenario by a few million, and you’ll get a sense of what’s going on in couples’ bedrooms all over the country. According to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring affects 90 million adults, 37 million of them on a regular basis. And while men are twice as likely as women to snore among younger folk, that gap closes after menopause, and women snore in equal numbers.
A poll conducted by the sleep foundation in 2005 found that sleep problems—most commonly snoring—not only have an impact on how well you sleep but can negatively affect relationships between bed partners. The snoring situation is so dire, in fact, that more and more newly constructed homes are being built with two master bedrooms, or small “snoring rooms” for the offender. That may sound extreme, but only to someone who hasn’t been serenaded in the wee hours by the maddening multiple frequencies and breathing inconsistencies that constitute snoring—unlike white noise, which is constant and far less disturbing.
Banishing your bed partner to another room, however, isn’t always a sound approach (no pun intended). A better solution would, of course, be a cure for snoring, because snoring can be a sign of more serious health problems that require treatment.
What causes snoring?
To no one’s surprise, the largest group of run-of-the-mill snorers is middle-aged and older men. But snoring is more common than most people realize—30% of adults over the age of 30 snore—and women make up one-third of those snorers. Benign snoring, as it’s called, is caused by “upper airway turbulence” that leads to vibrations of the soft palate and the uvula (that little flap that hangs down at the back of the throat), explains Joseph Scianna, MD, co-director of Loyola University Health System’s Nasal Sinus Center.
When you think about it, that snoring increases with age makes sense. As we age we lose muscle tone everywhere, including in our palates, which become flabby and thus more susceptible to vibration. Allergies or being overweight can also contribute to snoring. Drinking alcohol before bedtime, which relaxes the muscles in the airway, is another potential cause. Or you may simply have been born to snore. “Some people have larger tongues or palates than others, or thick necks or a weak glossopharygeal nerve (which helps control the tongue), says Ralph Pascualy, MD, medical director of the Swedish Sleep Medicine Institute in Seattle. “It’s often many factors that interact in different ways.”