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Obstructive Sleep Apnea Risk Factors

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This information was reviewed and approved by Sheila Tsai, MD (3/1/2017).

People who are overweight are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea, because the increased fat around the neck makes it harder for the throat to stay open.

Those who snore are more likely to develop sleep apnea. Smoking, drinking and nasal congestion also increase the risk of OSA — smoking irritates the tissue in your nose and throat, making the airway more likely to collapse during sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea may have a genetic component, as it is more common among African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics than Caucasians. It can also run in families. Men are more likely to have OSA than women. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in women after menopause than pre-menopause.

While the classic patient with obstructive sleep apnea is male, middle-aged and overweight, a person who is not overweight can also have an airway that collapses in sleep.

Central sleep apnea is more common in older people. This may be because older people are more likely to have congestive heart failure, stroke or other conditions that can interfere with the nervous system's ability to regulate breathing.


Conditions Linked to Sleep Apnea

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea is associated with a higher risk for insulin resistance, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke. For this reason, treating OSA is not simply a question of improving sleep quality and ending snoring; it may also decrease the risk of more serious disease. The link between OSA and these diseases is imperfectly understood. However, some events that happen during sleep apnea episodes may be bad for your heart.

In normal sleep, the heart beats more slowly and puts out less blood with each beat. Blood pressure is lower. When a person with obstructive sleep apnea stops breathing, he or she wakes up. This interrupts sleep and stimulates the cardiovascular system. Blood pressure goes up in the vessels and in the lungs. The pressures that build up in the chest as you struggle to breathe against a closed airway can also affect heart function. Even while awake, people with obstructive sleep apnea have higher heart rates and more variable blood pressure than people without sleep apnea.

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