MELISSA BLOCK, host: People with sleep apnea have trouble breathing during the night. The most common treatment is a machine that keeps them breathing regularly. And it turns out they have to use it every night. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, researchers from Switzerland find that just one night off the machine brings the symptoms rushing back.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: For Bill Peters, being diagnosed with sleep apnea was a good thing. A self-described obnoxious snorer, his wife couldn't get a good night's sleep even if she slept on another floor of their home. As a lawyer and lobbyist, Peters had to get all his work done in the morning. By the afternoon, he was too tired.
BILL PETERS: I could not sit down to read a newspaper in the evening without falling asleep. I could fall asleep in almost any movie; for sure, any concert; at any event that I wasn't standing.
NEIGHMOND: The breathing machine changed all that. It pumps air directly into Peters' nose and mouth, forcing him to breathe regularly. He no longer wakes up at night gasping for breath, and he doesn't snore. He gets a good night's sleep and can work without fear of napping.
PETERS: I've even gotten used to sitting through operas.
NEIGHMOND: For two decades, Peters has been faithful to his breathing machine, except for two times. Once, he forgot it when he went on a road trip. He felt so sleepy the next day, he turned around and came home. The next time, a blizzard knocked out electricity in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lives. At the time, no electricity meant no breathing machine.
PETERS: By the second full day without electricity, I was tired. The headaches had returned - just very intense headaches.
NEIGHMOND: Typical symptoms for people with sleep apnea, who are also at high risk of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, diabetes and depression. What researchers wanted to find out was how quickly symptoms like these returned if patients stopped using the machine. They divided patients into two groups. One used their breathing machines as usual. The other was taken off their regular machine and given another one that pumped less air, making it ineffective. After two weeks, that group not only got really sleepy, they experienced other bad reactions very quickly. Dr. David Rapoport is a sleep specialist at New York University.
Dr. DAVID RAPOPORT: Your blood pressure goes up, and certain hormones in your blood change. And there's a test that we use to measure your predisposition to things we think cause heart disease in the long term, and those change almost immediately.
NEIGHMOND: Like heart rate, and the function of blood vessels in the heart.
RAPOPORT: Raising your blood pressure a little may not do anything to you today. But over many years, it's been shown that that has an effect on your chances of having a heart attack, a stroke or even of dying.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Nancy Collop, who directs the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, says the findings are a reminder that the breathing machine is a treatment, not a cure.
Dr. NANCY COLLOP: It's like if you forget to take your blood pressure pill, your blood pressure will go up.
NEIGHMOND: The breathing machine can be cumbersome. Patients wear a mask to deliver the air. And often, they ask Dr. Collop if they really need it every night.
COLLOP: What I tell them is whenever they go to sleep, they have sleep apnea. So they're always better off wearing the machine when they're sleeping than not wearing it.
NEIGHMOND: Bill Peters says he really has no choice. The machine comes with him everywhere.
PETERS: It's an automatic. It's the first thing I pack.
NEIGHMOND: Over the years, the machine, which was once the size of a suitcase, has been redesigned and is now about the size of a square box of tissue. Peters' machine also sports an alarm clock and humidifier. And since that electrical blackout years ago when Peters couldn't use his machine, he now has a battery-operated backup.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.