Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in men than in women. Men tend to have larger necks and weigh more than women. However, women tend to gain weight and develop larger necks after menopause, which increases their risk of developing sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is most common in adults ages 40 - 60 years old. Middle age is also when symptoms are worse. Nevertheless, sleep apnea can affect people of all ages.
Race and Ethnicity
African-Americans face a higher risk for sleep apnea than any other ethnic group in the United States. Other groups at increased risk include Pacific Islanders and Mexicans.
People with a family history of obstructive sleep apnea are at increased risk of developing the condition.
Obesity, especially having fat around the abdomen (the so-called apple shape), is a particular risk factor for sleep apnea, even in adolescents and children. However, not all people who are obese have sleep apnea. Specific anatomical and physiological properties in the airways are more likely to be present in obese individuals with apnea.
Large Neck. A large neck (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women) is a risk factor for sleep apnea.
Facial and Skull Characteristics. Structural abnormalities in the face and skull contribute to many cases of sleep apnea. These include:
- A long lower part of the face
- Brachycephaly, a birth defect in which the head tends to be shorter and wider than average
- A narrow upper jaw
- A receding chin
- An overbite
- A larger tongue
Soft Palate Characteristics. Some people have specific abnormalities in the soft area (palate) at the back of the mouth and throat that may lead to sleep apnea. These abnormalities include:
- The soft palate is stiffer, larger than normal, or both. An enlarged soft palate may be a significant risk factor for sleep apnea.
- The soft palate and the walls of the throat around it collapse easily.
Smoking and Alcohol Use
Smoking. Smokers are at higher risk for apnea. Those who smoke more than two packs a day have a risk 40 times greater than nonsmokers.
Alcohol. Alcohol use may be associated with apnea. Patients diagnosed with sleep apnea are recommended not to drink alcohol before bedtime.
Medical Conditions Related to Sleep Apnea
Diabetes. Diabetes is associated with sleep apnea and snoring. It is not clear if there is an independent relationship between the two conditions or whether obesity is the only common factor.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). GERD is a condition caused by acid backing up into the esophagus. It is a common cause of heartburn. GERD and sleep apnea often coincide. Research suggests that the backup of stomach acid in GERD may produce spasms in the vocal cords (larynx), thereby blocking the flow of air to the lungs and causing apnea. Or, apnea itself may cause pressure changes that trigger GERD. Obesity is common in both conditions and more research is needed to clarify the association.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Obstructive sleep apnea and excessive daytime sleepiness appear to be associated with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a female endocrine disorder. About half of patients with PCOS also have diabetes. Obesity and diabetes are associated with both sleep apnea and PCOS and may be the common factors.