Whenever you find yourself facing a new health condition, your first instinct is probably to figure out what caused it. This very human response sometimes means looking at your relatives to see who might have suffered before you. When it comes to sleep disordered breathing, is sleep apnea hereditary? Here’s what we know.

What causes sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a form of sleep disordered breathing that affects an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. (although some researchers believe as many as 80% of cases are undiagnosed). Sleepers stop breathing at times during the night, gasping themselves partially awake and then repeating the cycle.

There are three types of sleep apnea.

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): The most common form that occurs when a sleeper’s tongue and throat muscles relax, blocking the airway
  2. Central sleep apnea (CSA): Neurological dysfunction means the sleeper’s brain “forgets” to breathe
  3. Complex sleep apnea: A dangerous combination of OSA and CSA where the airway is obstructed then cleared, but the brain does not signal breath

Regardless of type, it’s important to discover and address what may have caused this condition.

Is sleep apnea hereditary?

Is sleep apnea hereditary? There is not a simple answer to this question, but if we had to lean towards one it would be no. Even if your mother, her sister, and a cousin all have sleep apnea, it may not be a direct genetic link but a shared predisposition to sleep apnea instead.

So why does it seem like sleep apnea runs in families?

Turns out, there are factors that may be genetic, which can then lead to sleep apnea.

Genetically linked sleep apnea risk factors include the following:

  • Breathing problems: Asthma, allergies, or other issues in the respiratory system do have a genetic component that puts people at greater risk for sleep apnea
  • Structure of the upper airway: A narrow airway or one in which the tissues are looser can run in families and make breathing during the night difficult
  • Obesity: Obesity is one of the primary risk factors for sleep apnea and is genetically linked

For obstructive sleep apnea in particular, there are physiological factors that influence whether or not a person develops sleep apnea. Specifically, the following structural factors certainly contribute:

  • Receding chin (with or without an overbite)
  • Excessive fatty deposits or tissue in the neck
  • Narrow nostrils that lead to narrow sinuses
  • Large tongue, uvula, or tonsils
  • High-arched palate

To be fair, just because a person has any of these risk factors (or a relative with sleep apnea) does not mean that they will develop the condition. There are other important considerations. Recent research on sleep apnea does indicate what is called a genetic susceptibility to this condition, but the connection has yet to be fully explored.

Who is at high risk for sleep apnea?

In addition to a genetic susceptibility or predisposition, there are other sleep apnea risk factors. For all types of sleep apnea, you are more at risk if you also:

  • Smoke: Smokers are three times as likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea than non-smokers
  • Use sedatives, alcohol, or tranquilizers: These further relax the muscles of the throat and neck
  • Are a man: Men are diagnosed at three times the rate of women, but there is evidence that suggests that women are even more underdiagnosed than men
  • Are middle-aged or older: Children can develop sleep apnea, but most of the sufferers are in their 40s or older

There are other risk factors associated with central sleep apnea in particular. A history of congestive heart failure increases the risk of CNS, as does the use of narcotic pain medications and a history of stroke. Because complex sleep apnea is associated with the central nervous system, any neurological issues or disorders may also place a person at risk.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea?

It is crucial to get a sleep apnea diagnosis as soon as possible. Sleep apnea goes beyond daytime fatigue and can contribute to major health issues, including diabetes, depression, and stroke.

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Difficulty concentrating and other mental challenges
  • Noticeable cessation of breath during sleep followed by a choking intake of air
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Nighttime sweating unrelated to another condition (e.g., menopause)
  • High blood pressure

Diagnosis of sleep apnea is made through a formal sleep study (called a polysomnography). This test measures:

  • Brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Chin and eye movement signaling sleep stages with an electrooculogram (EOG)
  • Heart rate and rhythm with an electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Respiration
  • Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • Leg movement

Your sleep technician will also note the number of times breathing stops and for how long. This count is combined to uncover your apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).

  • 5 to 15 is mild sleep apnea
  • 15 to 30 is moderate sleep apnea
  • 30+ is severe sleep apnea

Treating sleep apnea

If it becomes apparent that you have severe sleep apnea, the technician may wake you and conduct a split-night study. They will hook you up to a CPAP machine to see how your sleep apnea responds.

Treatment protocols depend on the type of sleep apnea and how severe it is. For everyone who suffers, losing weight and getting plenty of exercise are great ways to make positive changes not only for sleep apnea but also for overall health.

Your doctor may also suggest trying sleep positional therapy to help keep your airway clear all night long.

CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure), and VPAP (variable positive airway pressure) machines may be good options for people who suffer from severe sleep apnea, but compliance can be difficult. If a patient does not use their PAP machine regularly, it’s just the same as not treating the condition. Sleep apnea devices are a good option for people who know compliance will be an issue.

If you have sleep apnea in the Phoenix area, come see AZ Dentist. We are your sleep apnea dentist in Phoenix and can help you get a good night’s sleep!