Sleep Apnea and Genetics: The Role DNA Plays

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that makes people stop breathing repeatedly while they sleep. Because of these breathing problems, people with sleep apnea often snore and may feel tired during the day, have headaches in the morning, be irritable, and have trouble focusing. Sleep apnea makes a person more likely to have heart attacks and strokes, among other health problems. People often wonder what causes sleep apnea and if genes have anything to do with it because of how it affects them. In this blog, we will review sleep apnea and genetics, its symptoms and side effects, as well as its hereditary characteristics. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous sleep disorder in which breathing stops and starts many times during the night. You might have sleep apnea if you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep. There are three main kinds of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea – The most common type, happens when the muscles in the back of the throat relax
  • Central sleep apnea –  This happens when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to your breathing muscles
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome – Also called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, is when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea

What are The Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Both obstructive and central sleep apneas have signs and symptoms that are similar to each other, which can make it hard to tell which type you have. Most people with obstructive and central sleep apneas have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Loud snoring
  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Awakening with a dry mouth
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake
  • Irritability

What are the Causes of Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea has different causes and risk factors depending on the type and the age at which it starts.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Multiple factors increase a person’s risk of developing the disorder including:

  • Obesity: A person is six times more likely to get moderate to severe OSA if their weight goes up by 10%. On the other hand, if you lose 10% of your body weight, you can cut the number of times you forget to breathe every hour by 26%
  • Body Type: The place on a person’s body where they carry their weight can make them more likely to have OSA. People who have a bigger neck or tummy are at a greater risk
  • Anatomy of the Face: The shape of a person’s face and where certain bones are in their head and jaw can make their airway narrow and make them more likely to have OSA
  • Gender: OSA is more likely to happen to men when they are young and middle-aged. Once they reach menopause, though, women are just as likely as men to have OSA. Men with the same body mass index tend to have worse symptoms than women with the same BMI
  • Age: People are more likely to have OSA as they get older. For example, research shows that OSA affects 10% of men between the ages of 30 and 40 and 30% of men over the age of 80. This higher risk could be because older people spend less time in deep sleep, which tends to happen on its own
  • Race and Ethnicity: Studies have shown that the risk of OSA is a little bit higher for people of Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and American Indian descent. These differences in risk could be because of the way the face is structured

Central Sleep Apnea

Although CSA also involves lapses in breathing during sleep, its causes and risk factors are very different from those for OSA:

  • Congestive Heart Failure: When someone has heart failure, their body often changes in ways that make them more likely to get CSA. Some of these changes are more sensitive receptors in the carotid artery, higher blood pressure in the blood vessels in the lungs, more sensitive receptors to changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, and longer times for the blood to circulate through the body
  • High Altitudes: Even healthy people who have never had CSA are more likely to get it if they go to high altitudes that are at least 3,000 meters above sea level
  • Opioid Use: More than half of people who use opioids regularly have CSA symptoms while they sleep. The severity of the symptoms depends on how much opioids are taken
  • OSA Treatment: Some people have what’s called “treatment-emergent” or “complex” sleep apnea, which means that CSA symptoms appear while they are getting treatment for OSA with a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP machine

Is Sleep Apnea Genetic?

 Some types of sleep apnea can be caused by genes. Central sleep apnea usually has causes that are not passed down through genes, but on the other hand, there are several ways that genes can be linked to obstructive sleep apnea. These genes are linked to many different bodily functions, such as regulating breathing, controlling appetite, inflammatory response, development of tissues in the face and head, and more. One definitive reason obstructive sleep apnea can run in families is due to the shape of your airway or lower jaw, both of which are risk factors.

Unlike central sleep apnea, there are several ways in which obstructive sleep apnea is linked to genes. First, many of the things that can make you more likely to get sleep apnea, like high blood pressure and heart disease, are passed down from your family. If you have a history of health problems in your family that make you more likely to have sleep apnea, you should talk to your doctor about any symptoms you might be having.Are you struggling with sleep apnea or symptoms of the condition and want to know if you’re at risk? Fill out our sleep apnea questionnaire here, or give us a call at (866)875-9765.