Of the three forms of sleep apnea – obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea – obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common. It affects 22 of the 25 million people in the U.S. who suffer from any form of this condition. However, these statistics only tell half the story, if that. It’s hard to know how common is sleep apnea when so many people remain undiagnosed, but here’s what we know so far.

How many people suffer from sleep apnea?

While there are sleep apnea statistics among various populations, it is crucial to take those with a grain of salt. Sleep apnea is a hidden epidemic that often goes undiagnosed and untreated, with potentially serious health complications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 50 and 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder, labeling insufficient sleep a public health issue. Sleep apnea, also referred to as sleep disordered breathing (SDB), carries with it serious health risks if left undiagnosed.

While previous statistics place the prevalence of sleep apnea rates in the U.S. at right around 25 million people and worldwide at 100 million people, a new study in 2018 estimates that nearly one billion people suffer from sleep apnea across the globe. This new data looks at better diagnostic tools and the rise in other conditions that are predictors or potential causes of sleep apnea.

Who is most at risk for having sleep apnea?

The perception of sleep apnea sufferers is that they are all overweight men. While there is some truth that obesity is one of the main risk factors for this condition, it’s important to note these other surprising stats from researchers at The Cleveland Clinic:

  • Post-menopausal women are just as likely to have sleep apnea as men of any age
  • Sleep apnea is often masked as fatigue or depression
  • As much as 80% of poor sleep is a result of undiagnosed sleep apnea
  • Women are eight times less likely to receive a sleep apnea diagnosis than men
  • Women present more subtle symptoms of sleep apnea that are less likely to be noticed by their partners
  • While sleep apnea is often referred to as a “men’s disorder,” women are grossly underdiagnosed, with one study suggesting that 50% of all women have some degree of sleep apnea.

Common risk factors regardless of age or gender are smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diet. There is some indication of a slight genetic influence as a risk factor for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea in children

Adults are not the only ones at risk for sleep apnea. Between five and 10% of children experience sleep apnea at some point in their childhood. Again, these are diagnosed cases, which means especially in children this number could be significantly higher. Children who snore, possibly due to smaller nasal passages, have an increased risk of sleep apnea.

The primary risk factor for sleep apnea in children and toddlers are enlarged adenoids or tonsils. Obesity is a risk factor to some degree, but only as children grow into adolescence and young adulthood (ages 12 to 18).

Sleep apnea in children and sleep apnea in toddlers is often misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Do I have sleep apnea?

There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the sleeper’s airway becomes blocked by the tongue or throat muscles during sleep. With central sleep apnea, the central nervous system essentially forgets to “tell” the sleeper to breathe. Complex sleep apnea is a dangerous combination of the two and is quite rare.

As you might guess, one of the main signs and symptoms of any kind of sleep apnea is poor sleep where the sleeper wakes up exhausted. Other common signs include:

  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Mental fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Noticeable cessation of breath followed by a choking intake of air during sleep
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening