Millions of Americans struggle with sleep disorders, but some are more serious than others. In sleep apnea, sufferers momentarily stop breathing while asleep; sometimes these pauses are practically unnoticeable, providing only a temporary lapse in normal patterns. Other times, they’re a significant source of sleep disruption and poor health.
Sleep apnea can’t be cured, but it can be treated and controlled and with the right equipment and approach. More importantly, it can be prevented, since most of the risk factors associated with sleep apnea are entirely within your control.
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea
There are actually three different types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common, occurs when a piece of soft tissue at the back of the throat relaxes and blocks the airway. Central sleep apnea is a nervous system issue, usually driven by genetic factors. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two.
These habits, conditions, and factors are all associated with obstructive sleep apnea (or complex sleep apnea), or could make apnea problems worse:
- Family history. People with a family history of sleep apnea are more likely to develop it. They may have similarly structured air passages, or may be prone to the same types of lifestyle patterns that lead to obstructive sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is also at least partially genetic.
- Previous snoring problems. Like sleep apnea, snoring has a handful of preexisting risk factors that all culminate in a single identifiable symptom; snoring occurs when airways are partially obstructed, and soft tissue vibrates due to the trapped air during breathing. If you snore, this extra airway restriction could interfere with your breathing while asleep, leaving you vulnerable to sleep apnea.
- Excessive weight. Excessive weight can lead to many health problems, including sleep apnea (and other problems that could make sleep apnea worse). The extra weight can make your air passages tighter and more restricted than before, making soft tissue more prone to vibration and obstruction.
- High stress Being stressed won’t directly lead to sleep apnea, but it could lead to problems associated with sleep apnea, or make your sleep apnea symptoms worse. High stress will interfere with your ability to sleep peacefully, and may increase your blood pressure, which could also increase your risk of developing sleep apnea.
- Gender. Males are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea than females, due to having narrower air passages. There isn’t much you can do about this risk factor, except acknowledge that you may be a person of higher-than-average risk.
- High blood pressure. Having high blood pressure may also interfere with your ability to sleep, and make it more likely that your airways will be obstructed during the night. Because it’s also associated with stress and obesity, it’s an especially telling risk factor for sleep apnea.
- Having narrow airways. If your airways are narrower than usual, you’ll be at higher risk for developing sleep apnea. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to determine this metric from the outside, but you can get a good indication of your airways’ width if you have snoring problems or a family history of snoring problems.
How to Decrease Your Chances of Sleep Apnea
These strategies can help you decrease your risk for sleep apnea—even if you have a family history of the condition:
- Exercise. Exercise will address many factors on this list, helping you keep a healthy weight, reducing your stress, and reducing your blood pressure all at the same time. You’ll also find it easier to sleep fully and deeply on days you exercise vigorously.
- Eat lean and healthy. Like exercise, eating lean affects multiple risk factors at once.
- Consider surgery. If your airways are narrower than usual, or if you have problems snoring, you may consider surgery to remove excess tissue and reduce your risk of sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea can interfere with your sleep habits, your cognitive abilities, your emotions, and even your general sense of wellbeing—but most of the risk factors associated with the disease are fully preventable. Pay close attention to your health, and take action early if you want to minimize your risk.