Obstructive sleep apnea runs in my family. Does that mean it’s hereditary? It’s a very good question and the answer is a definite maybe. If you do have obstructive sleep apnea, effective treatment can make a big difference to the quality of your sleep and your waking life. To what extent do family members and their sleeping problems have a bearing on your own risk of developing sleep apnea? If you have a family member with obstructive sleep apnea, hopefully they’re actively seeking treatment through one of the many solutions available. But if there’s any possibility that you might have obstructive sleep apnea or have the potential to develop it, you’ll definitely want to know – as obstructive sleep apnea can be dangerous to your health and well-being if left untreated.
So is there any truth to the belief that obstructive sleep apnea may be hereditary?
In many ways, obstructive sleep apnea doesn’t discriminate and many people can suffer from sleep apnea at some point in their lives. In fact, men, women and even children can develop obstructive sleep apnea – so it’s not hard to see why it’s recognised as the most common sleeping disorder.1 Before we explore who is more likely to experience sleep apnea, it’s important to understand how obstructive sleep apnea occurs, even though the reasons as to why are wide and varied.
Who gets it and why?
Many people with obstructive sleep apnea snore loudly, and may gasp for breath in their sleep.2 They may also complain of feeling excessively sleepy during the day as a result of poor sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is the result of the interruption to breathing which occurs during sleep when your airways are blocked or partially blocked. This usually happens when the soft tissue in the back of your throat collapses as you breathe. People with obstructive sleep apnea stop breathing constantly during their sleep – sometimes hundreds of times a night – even though they might not realise that it’s happening.3
Is being overweight a factor?
The more tissue you have around your airways, particularly your neck, the greater your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea. Considering these factors, it’s easy to see why people who are overweight or who have a thick neck circumference are at a greater risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea. And being overweight does tend to run in families, partly for genetic reasons, but also because it may be easier to gain weight when you’re in a family where being overweight is the norm. So it may make sense that obstructive sleep apnea can also run in families. Indeed, scientists do believe that there is some evidence that obstructive sleep apnea is linked to genetics.4
Is sleep apnea in my genes?
As obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage to the airways, physical traits that you may share with your family members such as your face and skull shape may also contribute to your risk of having it. In other words – in the same way that you may look like your relatives, there’s a chance that you may also share similar facial structures which may make you more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. It’s all backed up by research, which has found that family history is an indicator of the possibility of obstructive sleep apnea, with 25% to 40% of people who have it also having family members who have the condition.5
How do you know if you’ve got obstructive sleep apnea?
You may not even know you have it, until someone tells you that you’re snoring and gasping for breath when you sleep.6 It’s not surprising that this constant sleep disruption can cause you to feel desperately sleepy during the day.
Taking the first steps and seeking advice
Effective treatment of obstructive sleep apnea can help you to sleep properly and feel more energised during the day.
If you have a family member with obstructive sleep apnea, the best thing you can do is be proactive and explore whether you’re at risk of the sleeping disorder and know how to seek treatment.
What to do if you think you have obstructive sleep apnea
If you think you might have obstructive sleep apnea, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis.
1. Ho, Matthew L, and Steven D Brass. “Obstructive sleep apnea.” Neurology international vol. 3,3 (2011): e15. doi:10.4081/ni.2011.e15 accessed 10 Oct 2019.
2. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/features/sleep-apnea-clues#1 accessed 4 July 2019.
3. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/sleep-apnea accessed 4 July 2019.
4. Casale, M et al. “Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: from phenotype to genetic basis.” Current genomics vol. 10,2 (2009): 119-26. doi:10.2174/138920209787846998
5. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/obstructive-sleep-apnea-causes#3 accessed 4 July 2019.
6. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/sleep-apnea accessed 27 June 2019.