Sleep apnea is one of the most dangerous underdiagnosed conditions in the US today. While awareness of sleep apnea is growing, the majority of people with sleep apnea remain undiagnosed.
One obstacle that prevents people from realizing their sleep apnea risk is that awareness often focuses on the link with obesity. While obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, new research indicates that there is a genetic factor for sleep apnea that is independent of obesity.
That means that, even if you’re not obese, you should consider talking to a doctor or dentist about sleep apnea risk.
The Obesity-Apnea Connection
Obesity and sleep apnea are so closely linked that in the past when researchers looked for genetic markers for the condition, they thought that obesity accounted for all the variability associated with sleep apnea.
Genetic risk for obesity would tend to put one at risk for sleep apnea. But obesity risk is actually a composite of genetic and cultural factors. While a person’s metabolism can be a powerful influence on their obesity risk, so can factors like tendency to eat out, what types of recipes a person tends to prepare, and what they buy at the grocery store. Children who are brought up in a sedentary lifestyle are less likely to exercise themselves. All of these are not genetic factors, but they are, in some sense, passed down from parent to child.
But the question is, if a child manages to unlearn some of their parents’ unhealthy habits, are they still at risk for sleep apnea if their parents had it?
Independent Risk for Apnea
Researchers realized that to identify these risk factors, they had to utilize better data than previous studies. While previous studies had looked primarily at the apnea/hypopnea index (AHI, a measure of how many times breathing stops per hour), new data about additional impacts of sleep apnea, such as oxygen saturation levels, and duration of apneic events allowed a more complete portrait of sleep apnea.
In addition, researchers had good genetic information from diverse populations in three recent data collections: the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, and the Starr County Health Study. These studies had genetic information and detailed sleep studies from over 12,000.
Researchers identified two key genetic areas that were significantly linked with sleep apnea risk, and seven other regions that might be significant but couldn’t be linked with certainty. It’s important that these regions were actually not linked to obesity at all, but were linked to a different mechanism that might close or restrict your airway: inflammation. If your body tissues are more likely to swell significant in response to irritation, it might make you more prone to sleep apnea, especially during seasons when allergens are prevalent.
Even if You’re Not Obese, Get Screened for Sleep Apnea
Although obesity is an important risk factor for sleep apnea, it’s important to get screened for the condition even though you aren’t obese. Instead, look for the warning signs of sleep apnea:
- Heavy snoring
- Daytime sleepiness
- Chronic fatigue
- Reduced interest
- Mood changes
- Memory problems
Because sleep apnea is a serious health condition, it’s best to get screening for it as soon as you suspect you may have it.