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Breaking Down Sleep Apnea Stereotypes

Posted On March 11, 2015
March 11, 2015

It has been weeks since Diane seemed like her normal self. Gone are the days when she actively helped her children with their homework. When she talks, Diane rambles on or doesn’t make sense. The mother of four has a short attention span, her moods are like a roller coaster and she constantly has morning headaches, which sometimes are accompanied by a dry or sore throat. You are worried about Diane and encourage her to seek out medical help. She listens to your advice and to everyone’s surprise; her diagnosis is obstructive sleep apnea. How can that be? Isn’t it a condition that strikes overweight, middle-aged men? Diane is an athletic woman in her late 30s! Sounds like it’s time to break down sleep apnea stereotypes.

With close to 80 percent of the population walking around with undiagnosed sleep apnea, it is not far-fetched that Diane might be experiencing the symptoms of this disease and not know it. Whether you are a man or a woman, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can cause many a sleepless night and affect everyday activities during daylight hours. Depending on the severity of your sleep apnea and no matter your gender, breathing is interrupted throughout sleep, to the tune of hundreds of instances. Each time a person has a sleep apnea episode, the blood oxygen level drops and as a result can affect multiple organs within the body. Therefore, if sleep apnea remains undiagnosed and untreated, there is an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and failure, and stroke. This is where the similarity between the sexes ends because the differences are far greater in number.


Breaking Down Sleep Apnea Stereotypes

There has been a wide variety of studies exploring the gender differences in sleep apnea from incidence to risk factors to response to treatment. The following are some of the findings that highlight the differences in sleep apnea for men and women:

  • Men have a higher prevalence of OSA than women.
  • Men require a higher pressure level for their continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment compared to women with a similar OSA severity.
  • Women who are pregnant, undergoing menopause or suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome have an increased risk of developing sleep apnea.
  • When analyzing age, women have a lower incidence of sleep apnea across all age ranges.
  • Women with OSA show greater impairment in daytime functioning.


What the Studies Unearthed

In research conducted by the University of California Los Angeles and published in peer-reviewed SLEEP, female sleep apnea sufferers experienced a higher degree of brain damage than their male counterparts. According to chief investigator Paul Macey, assistant professor and Associate Dean of Information Technology and Innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing, “While there are a great many brain studies done on sleep apnea and the impact on one’s health, they have typically focused on men or combined groups of men and women, but we know that obstructive sleep apnea affects women very differently than men.”

In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found that levels of serotonin affected breathing with consequences for sleep apnea sufferers. The theory is that there is a higher incidence of middle-aged men suffering from sleep apnea due to a hormonal balance.

Despite the prevalent thought that sleep apnea is a disease affecting men, women do suffer from sleep apnea but are undiagnosed at about 90 percent. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Assistant Professor of Medicine in the division of Sleep Medicine, Grace Pien, MD, MS, believes that the misconception is the reason why women and not being properly diagnosed. Most health care providers are married to the belief that a typical sleep apnea patient is a middle-aged overweight or obese male and not a woman who might be suffering from symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, morning headaches or mood disturbances. “In earlier studies of patients coming in for evaluation for sleep apnea, the ratio of men to women has sometimes been extremely lopsided, with eight or nine men diagnosed with apnea for each woman found to have OSA. However, we know from studies in the general population that the actual ratio is likely to be closer to two or three men with OSA for each woman who has the condition.”

If you suspect you might have sleep apnea, been diagnosed or would like to find out how you can avoid the high risk of developing other conditions, contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a free consultation.

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