Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary? And Other Risk Factors

is sleep apnea hereditary

Each individual is unique in their own way – physical traits, facial structure, body shape, characteristics, etc. A lot of these are inherited as half of your genes come from your father, while the other half is from your mother. Your genetic makeup writes the instructions on every aspect of your physical being. Unfortunately, this includes your susceptibility to certain health conditions. But does this include sleeping disorders like sleep apnea? Is sleep apnea hereditary? 

 

Dangers of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders in the world. Affecting more than 25 million American adults, loud and excessive snoring caused by disrupted breathing does not just make a bad night’s sleep, it is a sign of a more serious problem. 

The lack of oxygen intake can lead to a long list of health issues, such as hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, acid reflux, daytime sleepiness, memory loss, and even depression. 

 

Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

Based on your genetics, you may be more prone to certain health issues than the person next to you. This applies to sleep apnea. Some people are more prone to developing risk factors for sleep apnea, and for some, genetics could ultimately be the cause for sleep apnea.  

While there is still no general consensus in the medical world about it, research suggests nearly 40% of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can be attributed to genetics. The other 60% can be attributed to lifestyle and environmental factors. 

While researchers seem to have found a genetic link, they are yet to find the exact gene that is specifically responsible for developing the sleep disorder. On the other hand, obesity is hereditary, and one of the major risk factors of sleep apnea. This is because fat deposits around the neck can cause narrowing of the air passage and blockage to your airways. 

 

Types of Sleep Apnea 

Snoring does not automatically mean you will develop or have sleep apnea. Your odds of getting it are certainly a bit higher.

There are three basic types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – This is the most common type and occurs when someone’s throat muscles and/or tongue relaxes too much and collapses, causing a blockage in the airway.
  • Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) – A rather rare type of sleep apnea caused by a neurological dysfunction where the brain is not able to send the correct signal for the body to breathe properly during sleep.
  • Complex sleep apnea – This is a dangerous combination of OSA and CSA; the airway is obstructed and cleared, but the brain is unable to tell the body to breathe.

 

Who is at High Risk for Sleep Apnea?

These are the risk factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea:

  • Too much weight (obesity)
  • Aging
  • Family history
  • Nasal congestion
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Gender (men are twice likely to develop sleep apnea than women)
  • Using alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Using sedatives
  • Having a thicker neck (narrows the airway)
  • Having a smaller lower jaw
  • Having large tonsils
  • Acromegaly (high growth hormone levels)

 sleep apnea hereditary influence

These are the risk factors for Central Sleep Apnea:

  • Aging
  • Cardiovascular issues (congestive heart failure)
  • Having previously had a stroke
  • Gender (men are twice likely to develop sleep apnea than women)
  • Using opioids

Risk factors such as family history and physical features that are inherited, such as a smaller lower jaw, larger tonsils, high-arched palate, larger tongue, and larger neck circumference, are genetic factors that lead to developing OSA later in life. Obesity, alcohol, smoking, and drug consumption are outside factors that are controllable.

 

Sleep apnea among infants

Children younger than one year of age can also have sleep apnea – also known as infant sleep apnea or pediatric sleep apnea. This sleep disorder is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. The American Sleep Apnea Association claims that around 1% to 4% of children in the United States suffer from this form of sleep apnea. Many of them are 2 to 8 years old. 

Infant sleep apnea can be CSA, OSA, or a combination of both. Symptoms include:

  • Disrupted breathing pattern during sleep (breathing stoppages)
  • Slow heart rate
  • Bluish mouth, lips, and skin

Though experts are yet to pinpoint the exact cause of infant sleep apnea, the risks and their potential causes have already been hypothesized, namely:

  • Premature birth
  • Congenital problems
  • Underdeveloped brainstem (part of the brain the controls one’s breathing)
  • Underlying medical conditions (i.e. lung disease)
  • Infections, seizures, or metabolic disorders

Other risk factors associated with pediatric sleep apnea include family history of sleep apnea, medical conditions (i.e. cerebral palsy, sickle cell syndrome, and Down syndrome).

 

Common symptoms of pediatric sleep apnea

It is important to get the right testing as soon as possible, typical symptoms include:

  • Frequent daytime naps
  • Irritable
  • Hyperactive
  • Mood swings
  • Behavioral problems

 

Diagnosing pediatric sleep apnea

It is extremely important to take your child to the doctor as soon as you suspect she/he has sleep apnea. Your pediatrician can refer you to the right sleep specialist.

To diagnose the disorder, the doctor will interview the parent regarding the child’s symptoms, conduct a physical exam, and lastly and more importantly, schedule a sleep study.

A sleep study will show everything your child is going through throughout the night. Of course, this means spending a night at the hospital or sleep clinic. 

Sleep technicians will place sensors on the child’s body to monitor the brain waves, heart rate, oxygen level, muscle activities, and breathing patterns. 

Sometimes, the problem could be more complex and the doctor may not be able to provide an accurate diagnosis. In most cases, the doctor will recommend an oximetry test. This is an initial screening that can be done at home by the parent. 

The first thing to look for in a sleep apnea problem in children is the signs of snoring. Also, sleep doctors may recommend the “electrocardiogram” to rule out heart issue problems. 

sleep apnea hereditary basis

 

Bottom Line

As said earlier, the cause of sleep apnea can be attributed to a lot of different factors, such as health and lifestyle choices. However, it is also undeniable that genetics, in some cases, play a big role in one’s risk of developing sleep apnea. 

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Dr. Manish Shah tmj and sleep specialist

Dr. Manish Shah

  • BDS, MBBS, MMED (Sleep Medicine)
  • Masters in Sleep Medicine
  • General Medical Practitioner
  • General, Implant and Cosmetic Dentist
  • Certified in TMJ & Craniofacial Pain Management
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