Your inherited genetic makeup can influence your risk for developing a sleep disorder called sleep apnea.
The most common type of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep. People with untreated OSA do not get high-quality, restorative sleep. They wake up many times in the night, snore frequently, and often feel sleepy during the day.
While many factors contribute to a person’s risk of OSA, the condition is known to run in families. A person is more likely to develop OSA if one of their close relatives, such as their mother or father, has the condition.
When OSA runs in families, both environmental and genetic factors may be at play. Families can share diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits that increase the likelihood of sleep apnea. But the genes passed down from parents to children can play an important role as well.
How Genetics Can Increase the Risk of Sleep Apnea
Scientists know that OSA often has a genetic basis. But there are still many unanswered questions on the subject.
Researchers have not found a single gene or set of genes that directly cause OSA. Instead, they believe a combination of factors lead a person to develop the condition. Some of these factors can be at least partially due to genetics, such as a person’s weight, facial anatomy, and ethnicity.
People with higher weights are much more likely to develop OSA. The higher a person’s weight, the more severe their OSA tends to be.
Although many factors contribute to body weight, experts believe that body fat percentage may be up to 75% determined by genetics. Some inherited genetic mutations cause obesity beginning during childhood while others raise a person’s overall risk of weight gain throughout their lives.
Environmental factors can make it more or less likely that a person will gain weight. Evidence suggests that people with genetic tendencies toward obesity who grow up eating sugary processed foods have higher percentages of body fat.
OSA often improves when a person loses weight. Though it may not cure OSA completely, weight loss is associated with less severe symptoms, as well as lower blood pressure and better overall health.
The shape and structure of the head are often inherited from a person’s parents and may increase risk of developing OSA. For example, an unusually small jaw can cause pressure on the upper airway and crowd the surrounding tissue. Additionally, having a large tongue or large tissues in the upper airway can make sleep apnea more likely.
Some of these characteristics do not lead to OSA unless a person gains weight. Some may occur as the result of genetic disorders or syndromes.
People who belong to certain racial or ethnic groups might be at greater risk for OSA. In some instances, this may be due to physical characteristics. Asian people are about as likely to develop the condition compared with white people, despite having lower rates of obesity.
African American people, especially those under 35, have a higher rate of OSA. This may be due to inherited genetic risk. It may also be affected by socioeconomic factors affecting weight like how affordable and accessible healthy food are and how walkable one’s neighborhood is.
Sleep Apnea in Children
OSA affects around 1% to 5% of children under the age of 18 and is most common in kids between 2 and 6 years of age. When OSA occurs in infants, it is often due to an anatomic or genetic disorder.
Many factors can increase the risk of OSA in children. As with adults, some of these may have a genetic component.
- Obesity: Being obese or overweight is a significant risk factor for OSA, especially among teenagers.
- Large tonsils: Kids who have larger tonsils are at increased risk for developing OSA. This can be hereditary or linked to illnesses and infections.
- Genetic disorders: OSA is more common among children with Down syndrome, achondroplasia, and Prader-Willi syndrome, among other inherited conditions.
- Orthodontic issues: Problems with the teeth and jaws, such as bite misalignment and crooked teeth, can lead to OSA.
- Environmental conditions: Kids exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to develop OSA. Asthma and sinus problems, which can be triggered by environmental allergens, are also associated with childhood sleep apnea.
- Craniofacial anatomy: Just like adults, children can develop OSA due to differences in their head and face structures, such as a small jaw.
When to Talk to a Doctor
It is important to let your health care provider know if you or a family member are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea is linked to a host of health problems and other concerns. However, it is a treatable condition that often responds well to treatment.
Be sure to talk to your doctor if you or your bed partner notice symptoms such as:
- Loud or frequent snoring
- Daytime sleepiness
- Choking or gasping at night
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