You may have heard of sleep apnea; in fact, you might have sleep apnea yourself, whether you’re aware of it or not. That’s because sleep apnea is more common than you might think, and it often goes undiagnosed.
In this article, we’ll be going over facts like these and many more. Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder, which means it’s important to know the important information about it. The symptoms of sleep apnea, like snoring and insomnia, may just seem like a nuisance (to yourself and your partner), but the truth is, if left untreated, sleep apnea can be dangerous.
1. There are Two Types of Sleep Apnea
The two types of sleep apnea1 are obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). In OSA, the sleeper’s breathing starts and stops throughout the night due to the throat muscles relaxing and blocking the flow of air into the lungs.1 In CSA, the sleeper’s breathing starts and stops throughout the night because the brain isn’t sending proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.1
OSA is the more common of the two, affecting about five to 10 percent2 of people worldwide.
There is also something known as “complex” or “treatment-emergent” sleep apnea. This is when a person starts out with OSA, which then converts into CSA upon receiving treatment.1
2. Both Adults and Kids Can Get Sleep Apnea
While sleep apnea is more common in adults, kids can also be diagnosed with sleep apnea. According to Yale Medicine, roughly three to six percent3 of children are affected by obstructive sleep apnea.
While OSA is most commonly caused by obesity in adults, and in younger children, it is more commonly caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids.3 In fact, obstructive sleep apnea is now the number one reason behind tonsillectomies in children.3
OSA in children can also be caused by low airway tone, which is common in children with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. As children get older, obesity can also cause OSA.3
Central sleep apnea4, on the other hand, is less common in both adults and children. However, CSA can occur in premature babies because the part of the brain that controls breathing is not yet developed.4 Brain injuries, brain masses, Chiari malformations, and certain medications like narcotics or opiates, even at low doses, can also cause CSA in children.4
3. Your Risk of Sleep Apnea Increases With Age and Weight Gain
With weight gain, the neck’s circumference tends to become thicker, and fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct breathing.1 This is why as a person gains weight, they are more likely to start experiencing obstructive sleep apnea. In fact, as we mentioned, obesity is the number one cause of obstructive sleep apnea in adults.3
Older people are also more at risk for developing OSA, because of an age-related decrease in the size of the upper airway5.
4. Sleep Apnea Often Goes Undiagnosed
According to the American Medical Association, of the roughly 30 million people who have sleep apnea in the United States, only about six million6 of them are diagnosed with the condition.
This is usually because patients don’t recognize the symptoms and most health professionals aren’t routinely screening for sleep apnea7.
5. Nearly a Billion People Have Sleep Apnea
As we mentioned, it is estimated that about 30 million people in the U.S. have some form of sleep apnea, and the number of people estimated to have sleep apnea worldwide is about one billion, according to a 2019 study8.
Chances are these numbers are even slightly higher now since the prevalence of sleep apnea seems to be increasing9.
6. Sleep Apnea Causes Your Breathing to Repeatedly Stop
Whether it’s obstructive or central, the key characteristic of sleep apnea is that it causes your breathing to stop throughout the night. In obstructive sleep apnea, it is because the airway has collapsed or is blocked, and you can’t get enough air. Central sleep apnea occurs because there is a miscommunication between the brain and the muscles that control your breathing.1
In either case, this inability to breathe causes a dip in your blood’s oxygen levels. Your brain senses this and briefly wakes you up so that you can reopen your airway. Oftentimes these awakenings are so brief that you don’t remember them, but your quality of rest will still be impacted.1
7. Sleep Apnea is More Common in Men
Males are two or three times more likely to have sleep apnea than females, according to Mayo Clinic.1 This is likely due to hormonal differences10 between the sexes, but it also has to do with differences in anatomy and weight.
That said, women become just as likely to have sleep apnea if they are overweight or if they have gone through menopause.1
8. Lifestyle Changes Can Help With Sleep Apnea Symptoms
The only way to truly “treat” sleep apnea long-term is to address the underlying conditions that have caused it in the first place. Luckily, many of these can be addressed by making some lifestyle changes. For example, losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol, tranquilizers, or other sedatives are some of the recommended lifestyle changes that could alleviate sleep apnea.1
If you believe your sleep apnea is caused by nasal congestion, your doctor may recommend treating the congestion first, and seeing if that helps. Lastly, your doctor may suggest that you try sleeping on your side or stomach11 rather than your back to help open the airways.
9. There Are Multiple Ways to Treat Sleep Apnea
If lifestyle changes don’t help your symptoms or your sleep apnea is more serious, your doctor may suggest you try a different sleep apnea therapy12.
The most popular treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure device, also more widely known as CPAP. A CPAP machine delivers air pressure through a mask while you sleep, keeping your airways open12.
More: Best BiPAP machine
If all else fails, there are some surgical options as well, including jaw repositioning surgeries, tissue removal, implants, and creating a new airway, known as a tracheostomy.12
10. Sleep Apnea Can Be Dangerous If Left Untreated
According to Mayo Clinic, if sleep apnea goes untreated, the risk of short-term and long-term complications goes up.
In the short term, you’re more likely to experience daytime fatigue, which can cause poor decision-making and even increase your risk of a car wreck.1 In the long term, untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, complications with medicines or surgeries, liver problems, high blood pressure, recurrent heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and even sudden death from an irregular heartbeat.1.
If you suspect you might have sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare provider so they can develop a plan to address any underlying issues and treat your symptoms.
Don’t ignore your snoring!
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
- 1. “Sleep Apnea: Overview”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2024. –
- 2. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified November 15, 2022. –
- 3. “Pediatric Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Yale Medicine. Webpage accessed October 25, 2024. –
- 4. “Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) in Children”. Children’s Hospital Colorado. Webpage accessed October 25, 2024. –
- 5. Edwards, Bradley A., et al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Older Adults is a Distinctly Different Physiological Phenotype”. Sleep. 2014. –
- 6. “What doctors wish patients knew about sleep apnea”. American Medical Association. 2022. –
- 7. Thompson, Cynthia., et al. “A portrait of obstructive sleep apnea risk factors in 27,210 middle-aged and older adults in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging”. Scientific Reports. 2022. –
- 8. Benjafield, Adam V., et al. “Estimation of the global prevalence and burden of obstructive sleep apnoea: a literature-based analysis”. National Library of Medicine. 2020. –
- 9. Marriott, Ross J., et al. “The changing profile of obstructive sleep apnea: long term trends in characteristics of patients presenting for diagnostic polysomnography”. Sleep Science. 2022. –
- 10. Kim, Sang-Wook., Taranto-Montemurro, Luigi. “When do gender differences begin in obstructive sleep apnea patients?”. Journal of Thoracic Disease. 2019. –
- 11. “Choosing the Best Sleep Position”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed December 13, 2024. –
- 12. “Sleep Apnea: Diagnosis”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2024. –