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Is Sleep Apnea Genetic?

Nov 07, 2023
· 7 mins read

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders worldwide. According to the National Sleep Foundation, an estimated 18 million adults and 10–20% of children who snore in the United States have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

But does this disease have a genetic component? Is there an increased risk if your parents suffered from this? We have brought a few answers.

There is a strong belief that sleep apnea can indeed be passed down through generations, making it a hereditary concern.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea syndrome is a common sleep-disordered breathing condition characterized by repetitive episodes of absent or reduced inspiratory airflow (apnea and hypopnea) due to an upper airway obstruction. It affects both men and women of any age, but is more common among older men.

Is Sleep Apnea Genetic?

Sleep apnea, like a lot of medical conditions, is a genetically complex chronic disease that is undoubtedly influenced by multiple factors.


Most people only mention the lifestyle factors (since they can be controlled) but new accumulating data suggests that there are also genetic links for this condition. Both direct genetic contributions to OSA susceptibility and indirect contributions via intermediate conditions such as:


Obesity: This is by far the most common and predisposing risk factor to develop obstructive sleep apnea. There are many specific genes (eg. MC4R and ADCY3) that can predispose to having a higher body fat index and an endomorph body type. Even if these genes do not generate sleep apnea by themselves, obesity is the biggest risk factor,


Craniofacial structure: Genes greatly affect the shape of a person’s face, nose and skull. The size and shape of a person’s nose, along with the placement of the lower jaw and other bones, impact how wide the airway is and how easily it can become blocked. Most nasal problems are inherited from one or more family members.


Neurological control of upper airway muscles: Some genes are associated with neurodegenerative diseases just like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease that can affect the respiratory muscles leading to sleep apnea.


Sleep and circadian rhythm: Just like some people are predisposed to suffer diabetes or hypertension due to genetic basis, there are some sleep conditions like insomnia or narcolepsy that are more associated with a few specific genes and that can exacerbate the symptoms of sleep apnea.

It has been estimated that approximately 40% of sleep apnea cases can be explained by family history. However,  most of them are not associated with genetics at all.


Another interesting fact that has surfaced about sleep apnea is that many health survey studies have shown that higher rates of short sleep among black people than other groups. Sleep apnea was found to be noticeably more common and more severe in African Americans. But science has not figured out the role of genetics in these groups or if it is caused only by lifestyle factors: probably both are involved.


Most scientists establish that developing sleep apnea likely results from multiple interacting genetic and environmental factors. This means that even if you have these genes you could still avoid the presence of the disease in your life.

Woman discussing sleep apnea with her doctor

Can Sleep Apnea Be Inherited?

You might be asking yourself “Should I be worried if one of my family members is experiencing the disease?” or “Is sleep apnea hereditary after all?”. The truth is not quite simple.


Based on an extensive research through Pubmed (a platform that contains more than 35 million citations and abstracts of biomedical literature) OSA is heritable, and the more relatives you have with obstructive sleep apnea, the higher your chances of developing the condition.


However, this is not a definitive condition for getting the disease. Most of the time those family members with sleep apnea are also obese or have nasal problems that lead to the onset of the symptoms, but if you treat these nasal problems and keep an adequate body mass index through exercise and a healthy diet, you may never develop this disease—even if your entire family has it!


And remember: In the worst case scenario, if you do suffer from the disease just like your family members, as we’ve mentioned sleep apnea is a treatable sleep disorder . At Sleeplay you can find the best CPAP machines and masks to treat it and protect your quality of life in the long term.


Genetics is a complex science that is not fully developed yet. Epigenomics, for example, is a new field that explains how the environment and the food we eat can alter the expression of some genes or not. This branch of genetics has been able to show us how certain good habits can avoid the expression of some bad genes.


As for central sleep apnea, there is not enough data to establish if there’s a genetic component. This type is usually associated with strokes or spinal cord lesions, but it could be genetically associated in rare cases— for example, in people who suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea you should know about:


Obstructive sleep apnea: The most common type of sleep apnea, OSA occurs when the throat muscles relax, leading to airway closure. It is associated with obesity, big tonsils, and nasal congestion.


Central sleep apnea: This less common type of sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send signals to your breathing muscles, causing them to malfunction, and is associated with people that have suffered strokes or are taking sedatives (eg. opioids).


If one person suffers from both types, it is called complex sleep apnea. Fortunately, right now, this is rare.

OSA, as we just mentioned, is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder worldwide, affecting more than a billion people around the globe. The most common symptoms of sleep apnea are: loud snoring, irritability, morning headaches, midnight awakenings, and excessive daytime sleepiness.


If you have two or more of these symptoms or your partner notices you have stopped breathing during the night, you should visit your healthcare provider or a sleep medicine doctor to plan a sleep study—this is the only effective diagnostic tool in the present. We offer a simple, hassle-free Home Sleep Test for your convenience.


If it is positive for sleep apnea, you don't have anything to worry about, there are tons of treatment options.

If this condition is not treated, it can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, heart failure, and of suffering heart attacks and premature death. Proper treatment can decrease these risks dramatically, with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP therapy) and lifestyle changes being the best options to improve sleep patterns and reduce or even eliminate the symptoms.


Even if OSA is quite common among adults, there are still many questions regarding genetic factors, and if they could precipitate the disease or not. 

Other Causes of Sleep Apnea


Genetics is not the only thing that matters, some people don’t have any family members with sleep apnea, and they still develop the disease. 


The causes are typically nasal polyps or any other nasal problem, excessive fat tissue in the neck or around it, large tonsils and basically anything that could interrupt the airway. Some neurological diseases like strokes or taking strong sedative drugs can predispose to develop central sleep apnea.

Treatments for Sleep Apnea


First of all, to reduce sleep apnea you can apply changes in your lifestyle. These can include weight loss, and eating healthy foods that can decrease cholesterol and triglycerides like salmon, tuna, and halibut—these are heart-healthy foods due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.


Also, regular exercise can help you have a healthier body and mind. There are some home remedies that could help a bit.


sing a CPAP machine is the most popular and effective method for treating sleep apnea and ensuring a restful sleep. These machines use a hose connected to a mask or nose piece to deliver constant and steady pressurized air flow into the nose and mouth via an attached tube and mask.

CPAP therapy is highly effective in improving your sleep apnea: it prevents your blood oxygen levels from falling during sleep, and allows you to get a more restful sleep, reducing the risk of future complications.


As a conclusion, most studies suggest that specific genes can predispose obstructive sleep apnea, but this premise has been present in only about 40% of OSA cases: this shows us that lifestyle factors are still the most important thing to consider.


Exercising, eating healthy, avoiding nasal congestion and other nasal problems, and keeping a healthy body mass index are key to avoiding the disease and its symptoms. In the Sleeplay blog you can find a lot more information about solutions and tips to live with sleep apnea and have a high quality of life.

Gustavo Fernandez

Medically reviewed: Gustavo Fernandez

Advanced medical student at the Central University of Venezuela. He has experience as a clinical observer in The Division of Respiratory Medicine at St. Paul's Hospital and participated in research related to respiratory diseases at the University of British Columbia (Canada)

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