“However…studies have provided some evidence for a link between obstructive sleep apnea and genetic factors—it is thought that approximately 40% of obstructive sleep apnea is attributable to genetics,” Dr. Hutz tells SELF.
Here are some of the risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea.
Various genetic factors, like the structure of the facial bones, tone of the upper airway muscles, and the distribution of body fat, all may increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea, physicians say.
“Because family members [can be] shaped similarly to each other, facial features such as a larger tongue, set-back jaw position (overbite), large neck size, or other body shapes that crowd the space at the back of your throat can be seen from generation to generation,” Steven Holfinger6, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
Obesity is another significant risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea. While somewhere between 2 and 5% of adults have obstructive sleep apnea, that number rises to 30% or higher among adults with obesity7.
According to the National Library of Medicine, it’s believed that excess fatty tissue in the neck and head may constrict the airways, and abdominal fat may interfere with the ability of the lungs to fully expand and relax, contributing to sleep apnea3.
Nicole Aaronson8, M.D., who is an assistant professor of Otolaryngology and Pediatrics at the Thomas Jefferson Sidney Kimmel School of Medicine, mentions that in a physical exam, a large neck circumference is the primary physical finding that correlates with obstructive sleep apnea9.
Sex is another risk factor, as obstructive sleep apnea is more common in men than women, according to the Mayo Clinic11. (However, the risk goes up for people assigned female at birth after they experience menopause.) Other risk factors include drinking close to bedtime, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, stroke, older age, chronic nasal congestion, sleeping on your back, and a family history of obstructive sleep apnea11. If you have a mild case of obstructive sleep apnea, then your doctor might recommend making some lifestyle changes that address these risk factors, such as giving up smoking, exercising, and using decongestants10.
Is central sleep apnea genetic?
Central sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where someone’s breathing repeatedly stops during sleep because of an issue where their brain fails to send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing, the Mayo Clinic12 explains. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea, and also can be a bit more complicated to understand, physicians say.
While certain underlying causes of central sleep apnea—such as heart issues—may have an underlying genetic component, central sleep apnea is not typically hereditary, Phillip LoSavio12, M.D., Section Head of Sleep Surgery, in the department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery (ENT) at Rush University Medical Center, tells SELF.
Here are some of the risk factors for central sleep apnea.
According to Dr. Holfinger, there are several common causes for central sleep apnea. For example, changes in oxygen at higher altitudes can lead to breathing irregularities, so you may develop central sleep apnea when you’re at a higher elevation11. And taking certain medications, such as opiates, or having medical conditions such as heart failure or stroke, can make you susceptible to developing central sleep apnea11.
In some situations, central sleep apnea can arise when someone with obstructive sleep apnea is being treated with a continuous airway pressure (CPAP) machine. When this occurs, it’s referred to as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea.