Can Sleep Apnea Run in the Family? Some Things to Consider
When it comes to Sleep Apnea, what role do genetics play? What causes Sleep Apnea? What are the risk factors? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the causes of Sleep Apnea and examine how genetics can play a factor. Many of the factors that influence whether or not a person is likely to develop Sleep Apnea are made up of things decided by family history.
For example, some people are born with a more naturally narrow airway than others, or with excess tissues due to nothing other than family history and the presence of some other risk factors. When combined, it can create the right conditions for Sleep Apnea to develop1.
Each person is unique in their traits, characteristics, body shape, posture, and facial structure, inheriting half of a person’s genes from the mother and the other half from the father. The genetic makeup of every individual is full of instructions covering every aspect of our physical shape, structure, along with our vulnerabilities to certain diseases.
Throughout our lives, we may find ourselves at risk for a different set of conditions than the person sitting next to us, based on the genetics passed down from one generation to the next. Sleep Apnea is no different. Some of us are more prone to developing certain Sleep Apnea risk factors than others, and the risk factors can be what ultimately causes Sleep Apnea1.
Is Snoring Hereditary?
Snoring is caused by the vibrations of certain parts of the airway as air rushes past during sleep. The airway vibrates because the tissues of the mouth and throat are relaxed during sleep, and the muscles are no longer taught. Genetics provides the geometry of a person’s airway, and those with a family history of snoring were more likely to snore than people that didn’t.
These were the results from a study published in the medical journal Chest in 1995. The study examined the incidence of snoring and whether or not current snorers had any family history of snoring. The study found that many participants with a family history of snoring were more likely to snore than ones with no family history of snoring.
The results of the research mean there’s a genetic component to snoring, and it can be passed to the next generation2.
Causes of Sleep Apnea
What are the causes of the different types of Sleep Apnea? There are three different types of Sleep Apnea. It’s important to know and understand the causes and risk factors that go into helping create Sleep Apnea, and we’ll go over them in the sections below.
Central Sleep Apnea and Complex Sleep Apnea
With a condition like Central Sleep Apnea or Complex Sleep Apnea, there’s something other than a blocked airway to consider. At least some of the time, the brain isn’t sending the signal to breathe. There could be any number of reasons for this including:
- Cheyne-Stokes Breathing
- Opioid Treatments
- High Altitudes
With Cheyne-Stokes Breathing, over time breathing effort and intensity gradually decreases, eventually leading to a point where no breathing occurs. Cheyne-Stokes Breathing generally among individuals who have congestive heart failure or stroke.
Sometimes people undergoing opioid treatment experience Central Sleep Apnea, as the opioids treating the disease have a side effect of stopping up the rest of the body. Opioids can impact the brain’s ability to send a signal to the lungs to breathe, and the result is Central Sleep Apnea.
Sometimes merely being at a high altitude can create a Cheyne-Stokes Breathing pattern, which can cause the Central Sleep Apnea.
Complex Sleep Apnea is a condition in which both Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Central Sleep Apnea exist at the same time. So not only is there a blockage of the airway, but there’s also a component to the condition in which, at times, the brain just isn’t sending the signal to breathe. Treating Complex Sleep Apnea requires managing both types of Sleep Apnea simultaneously.
What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
For Obstructive Sleep Apnea, the leading cause of the sleep disorder is one where the soft tissues of the mouth and throat collapse during sleep, and partially or completely block a person’s airway. This blockage prevents air from reaching the lungs, and the resulting loss of blood oxygen causes much of the damage done by Sleep Apnea.
Since a blocked airway is the cause of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, one of the things you can do as a Sleep Apnea sufferer is try and figure out why the excess tissue is there. Is it purely genetic? Or is it the presence of a risk factor that is causing the blockage?
Figuring out the reason for the excess tissue in the throat can provide valuable clues that can help you treat the underlying cause of your Sleep Apnea.
Risk Factors for Developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea
When a person is at risk for developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea, generally, but not in every case, the following risk factors are present. The list below was featured on Harvard University’s official website for healthy sleep:
- Obesity: approximately two-thirds of people with OSA are overweight or obese3
- Family history of OSA or snoring3
- Small lower jaw and certain other facial configurations3
- Male gender3
- Large neck circumference3
- Large tonsils3
- Alcohol consumption at bedtime3
- Post-menopausal (for women)3
- Hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormone)3
- Acromegaly (high levels of growth hormone)3
Some of these risk factors, like family history, large tonsils, a small lower jaw, and a large neck circumference are all purely genetic and can lead to developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea later in life. Other risk factors, like obesity and alcohol consumption at bedtime, are both factors that, most of the time, we have some control over, though it can vary drastically from person to person.
While CPAP therapy helps neutralize the effects a collapsed airway can have on a person’s breathing, it’s not going to “cure” Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The only real way to cure Obstructive Sleep Apnea is to find a way to reduce or minimize the amount of tissue in the airway.
Reducing the tissues in the airway can be done with certain surgeries, oral appliances, or, (if your OSA is mostly due to obesity) losing weight can have a significant impact on improving your Sleep Apnea. It can even be something as simple as removing overly large tonsils.
How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
Typically, Sleep Apnea is diagnosed by using a Sleep Study, which is a Sleep Apnea screening test that measures heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen content, among other things and can help determine if you have Sleep Apnea. Sleep Studies checking for Sleep Apnea are typically done at home.
You can also have a Sleep Study done in a Sleep Lab, which can test for other sleep disorders as well as testing for Sleep Apnea.
Depending on the results of the Sleep Study, you may be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe Sleep Apnea. From there, your doctor will recommend a course of treatment which may include CPAP therapy.
So the answer to the question “Is Sleep Apnea genetic?” really depends on the person, and what’s causing the Sleep Apnea. Is it because of large tonsils? In this case, the cause is purely based on heredity, since the genes from each parent help determine the size of tonsils.
If the cause of Sleep Apnea is a narrow airway and the presence of another risk factor, then part of it is genetics, but the other part of it is reducing the impact of the other risk factors.
1. Casale, M et al. Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: from Phenotype to Genetic Basis published in the medical journal, Current Genomics in 2009. Accessed on November 6, 2018
2. Poul Jennum, et al. Snoring, Family History, and Genetic Markers in Men published in the medical journal Chest in May 1995. Accessed on November 6, 2018.
3. Harvard University. Apnea: Risk Factors published on Harvard University’s official website for Sleep Apnea information. Accessed on November 6, 2018.
David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it’s like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient’s perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.