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Is Sleep Apnea Genetic?

Published February 4th, 2022 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Sleep Apnea 101 | Developing Sleep Apnea | Is it genetic | Diagnosis

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.

It is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the tongue falls back into the throat during sleep although there can be other causes for it too.

This can lead to brief awakenings and poor quality of sleep.

Sleep apnea is a serious condition and can lead to health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Is sleep apnea genetic?

In this article, we will explore the genetic basis of sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that is characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing, during sleep among other symptoms of sleep apnea such as loud snoring and choking during your sleep.

Each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can last from at least ten seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more an hour.

Similarly, each abnormally shallow breathing event is called a hypopnea. Sleep apnea is a serious problem because it can lead to other health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and even heart failure.

There are several different kinds of sleep apnea. The first and most common type of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is caused by a physical blockage of the airway.

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a less common form of the disorder and is caused by problems with the brain's ability to control the breathing of the upper airway muscles.

Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of OSA and CSA and can also be called complex sleep apnea.

is sleep apnea genetic

What are the risk factors for developing sleep apnea?

There are many different risk factors, including genetic factors, for developing sleep apnea.

Some of the most common risk factors include:

Being overweight or obese

If you are obese or overweight, you are more likely to get sleep apnea.

This is due to the fact that excess weight can put pressure on your airway, making it more difficult to breathe.

Lifestyle factors can play a big role in whether you develop sleep apnea and how severe it can be. 

Having a large neck circumference

A large neck circumference is another risk factor for sleep apnea.

This is because people with larger necks are more likely to have an enlarged tongue or tonsils, both of which can obstruct the airway and cause sleep apnea.

Being a man

Men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea.

However, it is unclear whether this is due to a difference in diagnosis rates between men and women or if there is an actual difference in their risk for the disorder.

Being over 40 years old

The risk of sleep apnea increases after age 40.

As we get older, our muscles and tissues can lose their tone and start to collapse, which can obstruct the airway during sleep.

Having a family history of sleep apnea

If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you are at greater risk for developing the disorder yourself.

This is because there can be a genetic component to sleep apnea.

Having large tonsils

Large tonsils are a risk factor for sleep apnea, especially in children.

Smoking

If you are a smoker, you are more likely to develop sleep apnea because smoking is associated with inflammation and tissue damage in the upper airways.

Using sedatives or alcohol before bedtime

Sedatives and alcohol can relax the muscles in your throat, making it more likely that they will block your airway during sleep.

Nasal congestion or obstruction

If you have a deviated septum or enlarged adenoids, you are at greater risk for developing sleep apnea because these problems can obstruct the airway.

These are some of the most common risk factors although there are more.

If you are at risk of sleep apnea and think you may be suffering from it, you should see your doctor or healthcare provider.

Is there a difference in risk factors between OSA and CSA?

In most cases, the risk factors for OSA and CSA are very similar.

This is because many of these risk factors affect both the central nervous system (in CSA) and the airway (in OSA).

However, there is one key difference. Many of the drugs that can cause CSA as a side effect also acts on the central nervous system.

This is why it is important to talk with your doctor about any drugs you may be taking and what their side effects are, especially if you think there is a chance that CSA is causing your sleep apnea symptoms.

Is central sleep apnea genetic?

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is the less common form of sleep apnea and is caused by problems with the brain's ability to control breathing.

In contrast, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is more common and is caused by a physical blockage of the airway during sleep.

The answer is yes and no about whether CSA can be genetic.

It has not been found to be genetic in the sense that CSA can be passed from generation to generation; however, due to genetic underpinnings you may be predisposed to certain causes for central sleep apnea.

For example, if someone suffers from a genetic heart issue, this may trigger sleep apnea in the person.

The cause though was not a gene passing on genetic information about CSA but due to a genetic mutation of the heart.

Is obstructive sleep apnea genetic?

Yes, obstructive sleep apnea is often due to genetic risk factors.

Roughly 40% of people who suffer from OSA have it due to genetic reasons while the rest suffer due to environmental factors or lifestyle choices.

This means that it can be passed down from generation to generation.

There are several genes that have been linked with an increased risk for developing OSA.

If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with OSA, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened for the disorder.

Why do infants get sleep apnea?

Infants can get sleep apnea for a few different reasons. One is that their airway is still small and narrow, which can lead to obstruction during sleep.

Another reason is that infants often have trouble coordinating their breathing with their sleep cycles, which can cause pauses in breathing.

Infant risk factors for sleep apnea include being born prematurely, having large tonsils and adenoids, and having a low birth weight. It is uncertain whether having a family history of sleep apnea is the cause in infants.

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea?

Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose sleep apnea.

The most common is the polysomnogram (PSG), which is an overnight sleep study that is completed in a sleep lab.

During this test, patients are hooked up to electrodes and sensors that monitor their brain waves, eye movement, the oxygen level in the blood, heart rate, and other vital signs.

The PSG is the gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea but it is not always practical or accurate in all patients.

An alternative is a home sleep test (HST).

An HST is essentially an at-home version of the PSG that is less invasive with fewer electrodes and sensors hooked up to the body.

It is important to note that an HST is not as accurate as a PSG but it is still an effective way of screening for sleep apnea and can be used in conjunction with other tests, such as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale and multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).

Summary

Sleep apnea is a disorder that is caused by the airway becoming blocked during sleep, which leads to pauses in breathing.

There are two main types of sleep apnea, obstructive and central. Both can occur at any age and is more likely if you have risk factors such as obesity and being male among others.

OSA can be caused due to your genetics while CSA can not.

Thank you for reading our article, if you have more questions or think you have sleep apnea the only way to know for sure is to talk to your doctor and get a formal diagnosis from an experienced sleep specialist.

References and Sources: 

mayoclinic.org

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

doi.org

medlineplus.gov

sciencedirect.com

academic.oup.com

sleepfoundation.org

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