How Genetics and Physiology Play a Role in Sleep Apnea

How Genetics and Physiology Play a Role in Sleep Apnea

A sleeping disorder characterized by frequent breathing interruptions during sleep is called sleep apnea. There are two types of the condition: central sleep apnea (the brain doesn’t send the signals to the muscles responsible for breathing) and obstructive sleep apnea (the muscles at the back of the throat are overrelaxed causing obstructions), known as OSA.

And, regardless of the type, sleep apnea can be caused by several factors which include genetics, overall health, and lifestyle factors. Now, let’s focus on genetics and see whether or not both types of this sleeping disorder are hereditary or not.

Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

Central Sleep Apnea

Even though most of the causes of central sleep apnea aren’t hereditary, some underlying causes like specific heart issues may be connected to genetics. Common risk factors for central sleep apnea include:

  • Being male
  • Having had a stroke
  • Suffering from congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Suffering from other heart conditions
  • Using opioid medications
  • Aging

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

According to research, obstructive sleep apnea can be hereditary as around 40% of the condition may be attributed to genetics. The other 60% of OSA cases are either environmental or lifestyle-related.

Furthermore, although research shows a clear genetic connection, scientists haven’t been able to identify the exact genes that are responsible for developing obstructive sleep apnea. But, logically we may conclude that the more relatives with OSA, the higher the risk of developing it yourself.

Common risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) include:

  • Being male
  • Family history
  • Obesity
  • Menopause
  • Having a thicker neck
  • Having a small lower jaw
  • Having large tonsils
  • Nasal congestion
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Using sedatives
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Aging

When to Seek Medical Help?

To be able to understand when you should see a doctor and seek professional help, you have to learn about the symptoms of sleep apnea which include:

  • Choking or gasping while sleeping
  • Frequent awakenings during sleep
  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Concentration issues
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability

If you notice any of the above-listed symptoms, ensure you talk to your primary care provider about the potential causes of your symptoms, including sleep apnea. And, since snoring is considered the main and most noticeable symptom of the condition, ask your partner if your snoring wakes them up or keeps them awake.

How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

As soon as you have discussed your symptoms with your doctor, you will be required to do some tests and answer questions about your sleep history and routine. Sometimes, a family member or partner may be asked some questions too because, as we already said, you cannot notice snoring yourself, but they can.

The test that’s part of diagnosing sleep apnea is an evaluation done by a sleep specialist involving overnight monitoring which can be performed at home or at a sleep center. During this test, your heart rate, oxygen level, breathing, and several other vital signs will be monitored and measured during your sleep.

In addition, if your doctor suspects that you may have obstructive sleep apnea, you may also be referred to an otorhinolaryngologist, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, to search and identify any causes of the breathing obstruction.

On the other hand, if your doctor suspects that you may have central sleep apnea, you may be recommended to see a cardiologist or neurologist for a detailed evaluation looking for an underlying cause of your condition.

The Bottom Line

Obstructive sleep apnea is more likely to be hereditary compared to central sleep apnea. However, they both require medical help so ensure you consult your doctor.