What Factors Cause Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

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Obstructive Sleep Apnea Getting the Facts

Obstructive sleep apnea is a pervasive condition where a person frequently stops breathing in their sleep for upwards of 10 second intervals. This causes a decline in the oxygen level of that person’s blood, causing them to wake up multiple times in the night.

Excess weight is one of the most common causes of sleep apnea in adults. This extra weight means more soft tissue around the throat and mouth areas; the throat and tongue muscles relax during sleep, causing the soft tissues to restrict airflow. Smoking, drinking alcohol later at night, and using sedatives are also linked to sleep apnea in adults.

For obstructive sleep apnea in children, causes usually include having a large overbite, enlarged adenoids or tonsils, or other dental-related conditions. A growth or tumor blocking the airway is a less common cause, and birth defects like Pierre-Robin syndrome and Down syndrome can cause it as well. Childhood obesity can also be the culprit, though this is not nearly as common of a cause as it is for adults.

Obstructive sleep apnea can result in serious consequences for any age. Since cardiovascular disease, premature death, and different kinds of accidents can happen, it is vital for those with signs of sleep apnea (e.g. loud snoring and daytime drowsiness) to receive medical attention.

Hereditary Factors

Genetics can also be a key factor. Those who have inherited larger necks (over 43cm for males and over 38cm for females), round heads, and narrow throats are more susceptible to obstructive sleep apnea. Hypothyroidism, which is the overproduction of growth hormone (GH) can be impactful as well, and allergies, a deviated septum, and other breathing-related medical conditions can lead to airway congestion.


Over half of those with obstructive sleep apnea are also obese or overweight. Weight is generally considered the greatest risk factor for adults with obstructive sleep apnea. In fact, a BMI of 25 or above is classified as overweight and each additional BMI unit equates to a 14% higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea. If a person experiences a 10% increase in weight, they will be six times more likely to develop moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnea; however, BMI is a less important factor past the age of 60.

For extreme cases of obesity (40+ BMI), Pickwickian syndrome (or obesity-hypoventilation syndrome) can occur on its own or in conjunction with obstructive sleep apnea, further limiting breathing.


While obstructive sleep apnea develops in four to nine percent of middle-aged adults, it will affect over 10% of those who are older than 65. This is because the brain becomes less capable of keeping throat muscles tense at an older age.

Also, men are four times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than women. Woman in menopause or going through pregnancy will be more at risk than usual. The gap between genders becomes less impactful for older age groups.

Around 25 to 40 percent of those with obstructive sleep apnea have immediate relatives with it as well.

Possible Complications

Obstructive sleep apnea has strong ties to strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, nocturnal angina, diabetes, heart failure, depression, drowsiness, gastroesophageal reflux disease, abnormal heart rhythms, insomnia, and hypothyroidism. Half of those with sleep apnea actually have hypertension, and obstructive sleep apnea makes heart disease more likely.

A treatment through continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), oral appliances, or surgery can greatly improve symptoms and reduce these complications.

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