Experts have long held that women suffer less frequently than men from the condition obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that occurs during sleep when the airway becomes obstructed, causing breathing to stop and start, and often causing snoring. Until recently, however, researchers were unsure just how common the condition is in women.
An estimated 100 million people have sleep apnea globally, with an estimated ratio of 3:1 of men versus women. However, those numbers may be higher than initially thought – at least among women.
In addition to causing sleeping problems in those affected, sleep apnea also causes other dangerous issues throughout the body, including depression, anxiety and obesity. It has also been found to cause or worsen things like diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer. Much of this has to do with lowered blood oxygen levels that occur due to the struggle to breathe.
Dr. Raul Garcia treats sleep apnea patients in his Miami, Florida, clinic. He says the higher number of diagnoses among women may be bad news, but it may also be good depending on the circumstances.
“We obviously don’t want more diagnoses of sleep apnea in any group,” he says. “But knowing that there is an increased risk in women makes it easier to then screen for obstructive sleep apnea in women. It’s not as easy to write off, but it should be easier to take it seriously.”
Garcia says sleep apnea can also cause extreme fatigue, which in turn can cause a long list of other problems throughout the day.
“We don’t want people working fatigued, driving fatigued,” he says. “A recent study even found that people with sleep apnea have a hard time holding down a job and are less likely, even as they get older, to gain salaried employment.”
This is likely due to underperformance at work, one of the many problems caused by exhaustion. And then there’s the other problems.
“Some people probably don’t think of obstructive sleep apnea as deadly, but it’s far more dangerous than we initially thought,” Garcia says.
Thankfully, according to Garcia, there are treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea.
“The first thing you want to do is see a sleep specialist. Then you want to make lifestyle changes if possible,” he says.
Lifestyle changes include losing weight and using a sleep orthotic, which props open your airway as you sleep. Orthotics are custom fit to the individual’s mouth and have been found to be more effective than traditional obstructive sleep apnea treatments.
“Getting something that you’re willing to use and using it can be the key to saving your life,” Garcia says.