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Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

Posted On January 29, 2014
January 29, 2014

Ocean blue eyes inherited from your maternal grandmother, check. Roman curve to your nose from your paternal grandfather and dimples from mom, check and check. Yes, most of your physical traits can be traced back in your family tree, but what about aspects that might not be apparent, such as gasping for air in the middle of the night? Recently, your primary care physician told you that this symptom is due to a diagnosis of sleep apnea. And so now you wonder: Is sleep apnea hereditary?

Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that affects millions of people worldwide and it’s staggering to think that 80% of these individuals are not diagnosed. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the airway is narrowed, partially collapsed, or completely blocked. When a sufferer inhales, it becomes increasingly difficult for air to reach the lungs. If air manages to squeeze past the narrowing or blockage, snoring occurs and/or obstructed breathing can end with a gasp.

Studies Answer Question: Is  Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

Published in Sleep Medicine Review, researchers accumulated data that suggested there is a strong genetic factor for OSA. In fact, they estimated that 40 percent of the variance in apnea hypopnea index (AHI), which measures the severity of the disease, can be attributed to familial factors. The group theorized that hereditary factors such as body fat distribution, face and skull structure (craniofacial) and nerve control of upper airway muscles may be found in the DNA of individuals with OSA. Hence, the risk for developing OSA may be inherited.

Other studies have also shown the connection between AHI and genetics. For example, Caucasians, African Americans and the older population demonstrate about a third of the variance in AHI that can be attributed to genetics. In the largest family-based analysis, the Cleveland Family Study concluded that there can be up to 35 percent variance in sleep apnea severity due to heredity. And in a study conducted in Scotland, researchers discovered that in relatives of non-obese OSA patients there was an increased frequency of abnormal breathing during sleep.

Due to the knowledge that there is a high risk for people with OSA to develop life-threatening illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes, the medical community has tried to delve deeper into whether or not sleep apnea is hereditary. In Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, a study appeared that suggested that OSA develops as a result of multiple gene-gene interactions.

Taking It a Step Further

In an attempt to take the possible genetics connection of sleep apnea a step further, a global consortium, Sleep Apnea Genetics International Consortium (SAGIC) was established. Across the globe, sleep researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University in the United States, Grenoble University in France, Landspitali University Hospital in Iceland, Charité University Hospital in Berlin, University of Western Australia and the University of Sydney in Australia, Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan, and Médicado Instituto do Sono in Brazil, have pooled their resources in order to study the genetics of sleep apnea. The goals of the consortium are the following:

  • Establish a large, international DNA database of consented sleep apnea patients.
  • Continue to investigate the genetics of sleep apnea and its connection with other serious diseases, i.e. hypertension and diabetes.
  • Standardize the equipment used for genetic studies of sleep apnea in order to better compare data among studies.
  • Improve genetic typing of sleep apnea by using parameters such as craniofacial measurements.

But bottom line, whether or not you have a family history of sleep apnea, it is still extremely important to seek an accurate diagnosis of your condition.

If you believe that you might have sleep apnea, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 or schedule a free consultation.



About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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