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Next PagePrevious Page Sleep Apnea is Common -- Who Gets It?

Anyone can get sleep apnea, including children, adults of either sex, and the elderly.

This page provides information on groups of people more likely to have sleep apnea.

Remember, this information is statistical only, and may not apply to individual persons.

The only certainty is that no one is immune.

Who Gets Obstructive Sleep Apnea

General population:

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common disease. A recent analysis concluded that 1 in 5 American adults has at least mild OSA.  That translates to 40 million people. About one-third of that number has moderate or severe sleep apnea.

Having both sleepiness and OSA occurs less frequently. The undersirable consequences of OSA may occur whether or not a person recognizes himself of herself as being sleepy.

Sleep apnea is under-diagnosed. In a study of middle-aged men and women in the early-to-mid 1990s, all of whom had comprehensive health insurance, only 2% of the women and 10% of the men with sleep apnea had been previously diagnosed.


Members of either sex can develop OSA. Men are 2-to-3 times more likely to have it, but women start to catch up when they reach menopause.

Pregnancy may be a time of increased risk for sleep apnea. There are no studies looking at sleep apnea in pregnant women, but studies have shown that about 15-20% of pregnant women develop snoring during pregnancy. This has raised concerns about sleep apnea in pregnancy.


OSA is linked to body weight in many, but not all, cases of OSA.

The more a person is overweight, the more likely they are to develop OSA. A study from Wisconsin found that, relative to a stable weight, a 10% gain in body weight made a person 6 times more likely to develop moderate to severe sleep apnea.

It should be emphasized, however, that normal weight does not provide immunity from OSA. Other factors, such as jaw anatomy, can predispose persons of normal weight to OSA.


OSA occurs in all races of people.

There appear, however, to be racial differences in the occurrence of OSA. For example, symptomatic OSA is approximately as common in Asians living in Hong Kong as it is in whites in Western countries. But obesity and overweight are much more common in Western countries. This suggests that Asians may be more likely to develop sleep apnea at lower relative weights.

A recent study of 6000 Americans showed that OSA does not occur more commonly in African-Americans when other variables, such as age, sex, and weight, are considered.


It is possible to develop OSA at any age.

Children, from newborns to adolescents, may develop OSA.  It occurs at about one-third the rate of asthma, and is most common in the preschool years.  Most, but not all, children with OSA have enlarged tonsils or adenoids; their surgical removal usually cures OSA. Even so, the disease may return.

The percentage of elderly persons with OSA is so high that authorities are questioning whether OSA in the elderly is a different disease than OSA in middle age.

Several studies have found that 60% or more of persons over 65 years old have OSA.

Family history:

The risk of OSA is higher when a person has a close relative (parent, child, sibling) with OSA. The amount of increased risk is difficult to quantify.

Some studies have found OSA in relatives of OSA patients about twice as often as they found in controls.

Medical history:

OSA is associated with many medical and psychological disorders. They are discussed in the page on consequences of sleep apnea.

It may help your understanding to read details about the causes of obstructive sleep apnea.

Who Gets Central Sleep Apnea

In several situations, a person may have central apneas even when awake. Examples include normal persons at high altitude, persons with brain injuries, and persons with severe heart failure. In these cases, central sleep apnea may be merely a reflection of the central apneas that occur throughout the 24 hours of the day.

Central sleep apnea is found most commonly in persons with heart failure. About 40% to 60% of persons with heart failure have central sleep apnea. The more severe the heart failure, the more likely central sleep apnea is.

Normal people may have a few central apneas while sleeping. This is particularly true after a sigh or after changing position in bed.


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Last modified 15:29 Pacific on 21 Jun 2004.