If Mama is Snoring...

Sleep apnea in women not so unusual and linked to obesity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Just as snoring is associated more often with men than women, so is sleep apnea. Since snoring and sleep apnea are related, does that mean women don't get sleep apnea as frequently?

A recent study found that the rates of sleep apnea among women are actually higher than many people might have thought.

"If you suspect sleep apnea, get tested."

The study, led by Karl A. Franklin, MD, PhD, from the Department of Surgical and Perioperative Sciences at Umeå University in Sweden, studied 400 women from a sample of 10,000 women aged 20 to 70.

The women answered a questionnaire and went through an overnight sleep study where technicians could measure how often they stopped breathing for at least 10 seconds, accompanied by a drop in the level of oxygen in their blood.

Having 5 to 15 pauses per hour leads to a diagnosis of mild sleep apnea. Moderate sleep apnea is diagnosed for those with 15 to 30 pauses per hour, and more than 30 pauses an hour is severe sleep apnea.

The researchers found that 50 percent of the women in their study had a score of 5 or greater, including 20 percent who had moderate sleep apnea and 6 percent overall who had severe sleep apnea.

However, the distribution of severe sleep apnea was not even among women of all ages and weights.

A sleep apnea diagnosis in general was linked to a woman's age and whether she was obese or had high blood pressure, and 14 percent of women aged 55 to 70 scored over 30 for a diagnosis of severe sleep apnea.

Further, about a third (31 percent) of the women aged 50 to 70 who had a body mass index over 30 — which indicates obesity — had severe sleep apnea.

Overall, 84 percent of the obese women and 80 percent of the women with high blood pressure were found to have mild, moderate or severe sleep apnea.

On the other hand, the researchers did not find any links between a diagnosis of sleep apnea and a higher rate of daytime sleepiness as reported by the participants in their questionnaires.

"We were very surprised to find such a high occurrence of sleep apnea in women, as it is traditionally thought of as a male disorder," Dr. Franklin said. "These findings suggest that clinicians should be particularly aware of the association between sleep apnea and obesity and hypertension in order to identify patients who could also be suffering from the sleeping disorder."

According to William Kohler, MD, the director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill, Florida, clinicians used to believe the ratio of sleep apnea in men to women was 10 to 1. In recent years, he said, it's more like 3 to 2.

Dr. Kohler said it was thought that women's hormones might have a protective effect on sleep apnea, which would offer one reason the rates increase as women age and pass menopause.

Another reason the rates among women may be higher, he said, is the increase in obesity, which is linked to a higher risk of sleep apnea. But regardless of the possible causes, anyone with sleep apnea should seek treatment.

"Sleep apnea is a significant health factor in our society as far as potential problems and it needs to be addressed," he said, pointing out the association between sleep apnea and high blood pressure.

The study was published August 16 in the European Respiratory Journal. Information was unavailable regarding funding and possible conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 17, 2012
Last Updated:
September 3, 2012