It's not only old men who snore - half of us now suffer. So what can we do? By Roger Dobson

Forget the idea that snorers are men the wrong side of 50. Binge drinking is turning young women into chronic snorers, with increasing numbers seeking help in tackling a problem that can lead to long-term health problems and wreck relationships.

New research shows that the numbers of men and women snoring, and suffering from obstructive sleep apnoea, are increasing, and it's not just young women who are pushing up the figures.

Research shows that increasing levels of obesity, a rise in allergies and a drop in the numbers of tonsils being removed in children may all be having an impact. And the increase in snoring has led to a rise in the number of treatments, with more than 40 now available, including sprays, tablets, injections, implants, splints, magnets and surgery.

Snoring results from the soft tissue or muscles in the air passages vibrating. During sleep, the muscles relax, narrowing the airways, and the narrower the airway, the greater the vibration.

In sleep apnoea, there is the added complication that sufferers can stop breathing for periods of several seconds, until the brain briefly rouses the snorer to get air moving again. A range of treatments for sleep apnoea are available once the condition is diagnosed, but it's estimated that only one in five cases are picked up.

Research at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne says that it is both under-diagnosed and under-treated: "Although now acknowledged as a worldwide problem, the majority of affected individuals remain undiagnosed. It is strongly associated with obesity but is also increasingly identified in the less obese.''

Snoring is now thought to affect about half the adult population. Research from Sweden shows that about eight per cent of women are habitual or chronic snorers, and that 15 per cent of the over-fifties have a problem. Over a 10-year period, the number of male habitual snorers went up from 15 per cent to more than 20 per cent.

Much of the increase is thought to be linked to the rise in the number of people who are overweight or obese. Additional weight around the neck means than when they lie down to sleep and the muscles relax, the airways are compressed more than normal. Another problem is the rise in allergies, which leads to blocked noses, breathing through the mouth and a greater likelihood of snoring. Yet another significant cause of snoring is alcohol, which causes the muscles to relax during sleep. "Alcohol and cigarettes are major contributors to snoring. We advise people that if they do drink, to have their last drink at least four hours before they go to bed, but that is a difficult message to get across. If they go to bed at 10pm, they don't want their last drink at six," says Marianne Davey, co-founder of the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association.

One of the most effective treatments for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, where a machine delivers a stream of compressed air via a face mask to keep the upper airway open. Research suggests that it is effective for about 95 per cent of patients.

There are also a number of gumshield-like splints, worn in the mouth at night, which push the lower jaw forward to encourage the flow of air. Some research shows they can reduce snoring by about 70 per cent.

Surgery may involve a laser to remove tissue blocking airways, or use radio-frequency energy to induce scarring and hence stiffening of the tissue.

Other treatments are on the way, too, including tiny repelling magnets. Head and neck specialists have discovered that once implanted in the airways, the repelling action of the magnets can help to keep them open. The first patients are expected to be implanted with the magnet material within the next few weeks in clinical trials.

"It is a very clever idea,'' says Eric Doelling, chief executive of Apneon, a company dedicated to finding new treatments for sleep apnoea. "They do not need to be powered. They are ordinary magnets that provide just enough force to stop the tissue coming together when the muscles relax during sleep.''

But while there has been an explosion in hi-tech treatments, research shows that some of the simplest ideas can work, too.

Regularly playing a wind instrument over a four-month period can reduce snoring in men and women with moderate obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome - and also improve the sleep quality of partners.

But it has be the right wind instrument, where the right circular breathing techniques are used. According to Dr Maurice Preter of Columbia University, a clarinet, or even a didgeridoo, will do, but not a tuba. For those seeking a musical partner who does not snore, it may be best to avoid a tuba player.

British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association (01737 245 638;

Noises in the night

Children with at least one parent who snores frequently are three times more likely to snore.

Children with an allergy are twice as likely to snore.

Around 40 per cent of the UK adult population snore.

There are around 15 million snorers in Britain.

There are 10.4 million men and 4.5 million women snorers.

Men are louder snorers than women.

Sound levels average 60 decibels but 80, equivalent to a vacuum cleaner, is not uncommon.

Nearly 60 per cent of snorers are between 50-59 years of age.

We sleep 25 per cent less than our ancestors did a century ago.

Sleep apnoea affects about 6 per cent of men but is probably under-diagnosed.

Almost 16 per cent of babies snore in the first month.