Mary Schaff: “Put electronics to bed”

Put electronics to bed — The temptation is real! I, too, can easily find myself wanting to take a last look at my phone to catch up on email or happenings of the day, and it’s a slippery slope. But the repercussions are not worth it. Electronic use close to bedtime serves to stimulate the brain and […]

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Put electronics to bed — The temptation is real! I, too, can easily find myself wanting to take a last look at my phone to catch up on email or happenings of the day, and it’s a slippery slope. But the repercussions are not worth it. Electronic use close to bedtime serves to stimulate the brain and blue light from screens has been shown to block the production of melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the body in response to darkness that helps to regulate sleep and wake cycles.

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Mary Schaff.

Mary is an ardent advocate and spokesperson for education and awareness for sleep apnea, a highly treatable yet often undiagnosed disorder. She first became involved in sleep apnea in 2015 following the untimely death of her husband John, who had unknowingly suffered from sleep apnea for many years. She is dedicated to generating conversation about sleep apnea among potential sufferers, their families and physicians. It is her hope that in sharing her story, others may have the possibility of a different outcome.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

I was born and raised in (Indianapolis). I met my soon-to-be husband John in Leelanau County , Mich. where both of our families spent time in the summers. Shortly after getting married, we moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where we put down roots and raised our family. We were blessed with three children and enjoyed an active life with school, church, sports, travel and visits with large extended family on both sides.

Giving back has always been important to me, from volunteering my time with various non-profits to working in my kids’ schools. Together, John and I also supported organizations philanthropically and by serving on boards. In 2013, John and I received Ben Emdin Guiding Principles in Action awards from Forest Hills Public Schools for our support and commitment to the district’s key principles of caring, collaboration and building partnerships within the community. In honor of John’s legacy, I continue to support the causes that were important to him and to us.

After John’s death, I began looking into why the link between sleep apnea and other diseases and conditions is so often overlooked. During my research I was amazed to find that in several years of medical school, many students receive little education in sleep-related disorders. Since then, I have dedicated myself to generating awareness and education for obstructive sleep apnea — its causes, symptoms, treatment options, and the potential repercussions if left untreated.

In addition to my advocacy, I enjoy a healthy lifestyle and love spending time outdoors walking and biking, traveling, and with friends. Family remains my top priority and I cherish time with my adult children and grandchildren.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

My late husband John snored much of his adult life. It increased in both frequency and intensity in his early 40s, but he dismissed it as a minor annoyance, and I tried to do the same for a while. Even after he began experiencing side effects from failing to achieve deep sleep, he was quick to dismiss my concerns and refused to acknowledge something was wrong, often brushing me off by saying “It’s just snoring” and “It’s nothing to worry about.” At this time, neither of us was aware of obstructive sleep apnea, which is defined as the involuntary cessation of breathing during sleep when the soft tissue of the palate collapses and falls against the back of the throat, blocking the airway.

We led an active life, with regular exercise and frequent travel. However, John’s sleep problems persisted over the course of a decade and began to negatively impact our daily activities. He became no stranger to nodding off in church, falling asleep watching TV and in the office, and once even starting to doze off at the wheel.

John did see his doctor regularly, but nothing stood out to his physician as a red flag. Routine blood and cholesterol tests were normal, everything checked out fine. The doctor did recommend John lose some weight, which was a point of frustration, as John, a lifelong athlete, unsuccessfully sought to address his weight with diet and exercise. Still, sleep was not a part of the conversation.

I encouraged John to have a sleep test to try to get to the bottom of his daytime tiredness, but he held out, citing reports from friends that the in-clinic test was a “horrible and uncomfortable” experience. I had a nagging suspicion that something was wrong, and I believe John did too, as he eventually ordered a CPAP machine. Like many others, John found the initial CPAP mask uncomfortable and quit using it after only three nights. Neither of us realized the device needed to be individually pressurized by a technician to properly work.

It was a new internist who had experience with sleep disorders who finally connected the dots and suspected John suffered from sleep apnea. The years of interrupted sleep and arrested breathing had slowed his metabolism to a standstill because his body had been so severely deprived of oxygen. The doctor’s explanation was clear and John agreed to do a sleep test. This felt like true progress — a plan to determine the course of treatment!

Only John died of cardiac arrest a mere two days before the test. The lack of oxygen to his organs over time had damaged his heart, and we had no idea. Sleep apnea was listed on his death certificate as a contributing cause of John’s death. He was 57 years old.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

At the heart of it, I believe my greatest contribution to the world of wellness is sharing my personal story with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects one in three adults in the United States alone, and more than 90 percent of people with this highly-treatable condition go undiagnosed. And today we’re hearing more and more about the diagnosis of sleep apnea in children.

In my quest to learn more about the disorder, I’ve been fortunate to develop a relationship with leading sleep expert and neurologist Dr. Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center was among the first in the nation dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders in people of all ages.

Together, Dr. Foldvary and I have addressed many audiences about obstructive sleep apnea. I believe the combination of clinical information and a personal, relatable story is incredibly impactful.

Through this relationship, I was also involved in the development of the mobile app “Sleep by Cleveland Clinic.” The app is available for free on the Apple app store, and allows users to assess their sleep disorder risk, learn how to sleep better, and get connected to experts for help.

Additionally, I too, suffer from mild sleep apnea. After going through all of this with my husband John, I recognized that I was experiencing disruption to my sleep. A sleep test confirmed my suspicions, and my doctor and I settled on an oral appliance as the best means to treat my sleep apnea.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“The Book of Joy” by The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams has been particularly meaningful to me. The book was given to me by a family member not too long after John’s death, at a point when joy felt fleeting at best. Their personal stories of finding joy in the face of adversity and truly choosing joy as a way of life were inspirational to me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Actually, it’s more of a life question, which is “How are you sleeping?” It’s a basic question with a seemingly simple answer, but the answer may help to reveal some serious health concerns — and perhaps even save a life. It’s one of the easiest ways to spark a meaningful conversation, and conversation within families, with friends and even with physicians is the goal.

One of my favorite stories involves someone hearing me ask this question of others and applying it to himself. Jim Millett, the manager of a private club in Naples, Fl., overheard a conversation during a reception where I spoke about losing my husband and what the symptoms for sleep apnea include. He quickly realized that he suffered from most of the symptoms I had mentioned. That evening he spoke with his wife about it — she of course reminded him that she had mentioned his snoring for years and even his occasional gasping for breath. That next morning Jim called the doctor to schedule an appointment, which resulted in a sleep test and the ultimate diagnosis of sever sleep apnea. He was prescribed a CPAP machine. Jim saw me a few months later and shared that he credits hearing my story with saving his life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Some individuals may find they require a little more, but anything below that is not recommended.

Younger adults (18–25 years) and those between 26–64 should get between 7–9 hours, while older adults (65+) should seek to get 7–8 hours each night.

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

First, it is the quality of sleep that is most important, followed by the duration. As for exactly what time someone should go to bed, that’s a matter of what works with your personal schedule. It is, however, important to keep consistent sleep and wake times in order to achieve good quality sleep.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

Regular solid sleep has many benefits, both physical and mental.

The most immediate and noticeable benefits would likely be:

  • Improved mood
  • Reduced stress
  • Ability to think more clearly
  • Increased productivity

Longer term benefits could include:

  • Greater ability to maintain a healthy weight
  • Boosted immunity/less sick
  • Lower blood pressure for a healthier heart

And as the science of sleep continues to evolve, we are hearing more about sleep and brain health, such as sleep helping to ward off or lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

I absolutely believe we all should make getting a good night’s sleep a priority! Aside from helping you look and feel your best, it’s an important way to help your body reset.

The health problems linked to insufficient sleep speak loudly to this, many of which you wouldn’t necessary attribute to poor sleep. These issues include weight gain and obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, depression, an impaired immune system, and increased risk of death.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

  • You’re right, we do intellectually know that sleep is important, but it can often be hard to move the needle on getting that good quality sleep. In my opinion, I believe the first blockage is true recognition — simply recognizing that you’re not achieving good sleep. You may feel like you don’t have much energy, don’t feel well or maybe even struggle to concentrate, but attributing that to poor or not enough sleep is key.
  • Another stumbling block is denial. Once you recognize that you’re not getting the sleep your body needs, you need to accept that this is a problem to be dealt with and prepare to take action. If after intentionally trying to improve sleep on your own, this should be a conversation with your doctor which may result in a sleep test.
  • And a third block is fear. Fear of being told you need a sleep test, fear of testing and what the diagnosis or outcome may be. The truth is, sleep tests are much easier than they’ve ever been, with some done from the comfort of your own bed. Or perhaps it’s the fear of hearing you may have sleep apnea and need to use a CPAP machine at night to help keep your airway open. There are many treatment options depending on severity, ranging from CPAP or Bi-PAP machines to dental appliances to surgical options. You the old saying “knowledge is power” — it really does apply here.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

I do believe it is more difficult to get a good night’s sleep today. Electronics, 24-hour news, increased demands on our time, you name it. It takes awareness, intention and follow through. After all that, if you find you still can’t achieve “good sleep,” it may be time for a sleep test.

Sleep studies often get a bad rap, but the truth is they’ve become much more accessible and much more comfortable. Some can even be undertaken from the comfort of your own home in your own bed.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. No alcohol before bed — While a nightcap or a glass of wine before bed can be relaxing, you need to think twice before indulging. It may help you fall asleep faster, but alcohol is linked to poor sleep quality and duration, and also linked to increased risk of sleep apnea and exacerbation of sleep apnea symptoms. The muscles in the throat relax, making it more likely for them to block the airway.
  2. Establish a sleep schedule — Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule may be easier said than done, but it is definitely something to strive for, as it helps to reinforce the body’s sleep/wake cycle. That means aiming for roughly eight hours of sleep per night and going to bed and waking at the same time every day.
  3. Create a peaceful bedroom environment — Create a restful space that’s ideal for sleeping. That means keeping work and other activities out of the bedroom where possible. Blocking light when it’s truly time for “lights out.”
  4. Put electronics to bed — The temptation is real! I, too, can easily find myself wanting to take a last look at my phone to catch up on email or happenings of the day, and it’s a slippery slope. But the repercussions are not worth it. Electronic use close to bedtime serves to stimulate the brain and blue light from screens has been shown to block the production of melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the body in response to darkness that helps to regulate sleep and wake cycles.
  5. Exercise — Regular physical activity has many benefits, and numerous studies show that regular exercise tracks with better quality sleep. On the more extreme side, according to the Sleep Foundation, studies show that individuals who experience chronic insomnia who begin exercising regularly can fall asleep up to 13 minutes faster in as little as four weeks. Personally, I enjoy walking and try to get out for some fresh air whenever I can.

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

My first inclination would be to count your blessings, which is much more meaningful than counting sheep. But in all seriousness, if nighttime wakefulness persists, I would recommend to anyone that they contact their doctor to schedule a sleep test. This will help to determine if there’s a more serious underlying cause.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

Everyone is different when it comes to how much sleep is needed. A brief “power nap” may be just the thing to help you feel energized for the rest of the day, but the same quick nap could keep someone else up for hours at night. You really need to know your own body. The most important sleep occurs at night, when one sleeps for a longer duration of time.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could choose someone to have lunch with, it would be Katie Couric. I greatly admire her and relate to the untimely loss of a husband to a disease that wasn’t widely known — a disease that with early detection, could have been successfully treated.

Katie’s advocacy for education, screening and early detection of colon cancer has been remarkable, and I greatly admire her tenacity and perseverance to help others and to help save lives.

When I found myself feeling helpless in the wake of John’s death, Katie was the inspiration behind my decision to push for greater awareness for sleep apnea. I decided that “If only we had known” and “If we only knew more” needed to be followed by “So that others may know and take action.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I have created the website and a Facebook page by the same name to share my story and to help educate those interested in learning more about the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. These also feature curated articles about advancements and important information on sleep and sleep apnea, as well as links to critical resources.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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