Risk Factors

There are many risk factors for sleep apnea. Some risk factors, such as unhealthy lifestyle habits and environments, can be changed. Other risk factors, such as age, family history and genetics, race and ethnicity, and sex, cannot be changed. Heathy lifestyle changes can decrease your risk for developing sleep apnea.

Age

Sleep apnea can occur at any age. The risk for sleep apnea increases as you get older. In younger adults, sleep apnea is more common in men than in women, but the difference decreases later in life. Normal age-related changes in how the brain controls breathing during sleep partially explain the increased risk as you get older. Another possible reason is that as we age, more fatty tissue builds up in the neck and the tongue.

Unhealthy lifestyle habits

Drinking alcohol, smoking, and overweight or obesity can increase your risk for sleep apnea.

  • Alcohol can increase relaxation of the muscles in the mouth and throat, closing the upper airway. It can also affect how the brain controls sleep or the muscles involved in breathing.
  • Smoking can cause inflammation in the upper airway, affecting breathing, or it can affect how the brain controls sleep or the muscles involved in breathing.
  • Unhealthy eating patterns and lack of physical activity can lead to overweight and obesity, which can result in sleep apnea.

Family history and genetics

Researchers have identified family history as a risk factor for sleep apnea, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle can decrease this risk. Studies in twins have shown that sleep apnea can be inherited . Some of the gene related to sleep apnea are associated with the structural development of the face and skull and with how the brain controls sleep and breathing during sleep. Some genes are also associated with obesity and inflammation.

Race or ethnicity

In the United States, sleep apnea is more common among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans than among whites.