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Obstructive Sleep Apnea - Why Me?

You’ve been diagnosed

You’ve been tired and irritable for months. At last, you’ve found out the reason: you've got obstructive sleep apnea. One of the very first questions that come to mind is – how did this all start? Was I born with it?

The quick answer? Yes, and no.

Your genetics may have contributed, but sleep disorders are often linked to lifestyle factors such as drinking too much or not watching your weight.

Just waking up groggy and with a headache because of your sleep apnea is already rough enough.

But did you know that not all the harmful effects of sleep apnea are apparent and in-your-face? There are health risks that wait – just under the surface. It can be heart disease or high blood pressure. You could develop diabetes.

Another high-risk factor is the silent stroke. 

Two common forms of Sleep Apnea

Your doctor may have told you that there are multiple forms of sleep disorders.The two most common forms are:

    • Central sleep apnea – where your brain is at fault. The pathway between your muscles and the part of your brain that tells you to control breathing becomes corrupted. With nothing ‘telling’ you to breathe, you may awaken, gasping for air. You may also have trouble falling asleep.

    • Obstructive sleep apnea – this is all about muscles. Your throat muscle supports your soft palate, your uvula, tonsils, and sidewalls of your tongue and throat. When this muscle relaxes too much and your airway closes, you can’t get enough air. Your brain shouts, 'Wake up!' and you do, for a very brief time. It can be so quick that you don’t realize it. What is more, is that this can happen multiple times each hour, keeping you from getting to that deep, restful sleep that you so desperately need.

Is Sleep Apnea Inherited?

The good news is that you cannot pass your sleep apnea on to your child. Instead, you may have passed on some genetically disposed risk factors. For example, some people pile on fat more easily. Unfortunately, being overweight is one of the most well-known causes of sleep apnea – it is an indirect way in which sleep apnea is hereditary. Should you have this problem, along with others in your family, the risk to your child may be higher.

Other possible risk factors for sleep apnea include a small lower jaw, huge tonsils, a narrow airway, or an unusually thick neck. Researchers say these genetic risk factors contribute to about 40% of all cases.

...possible risk factors for sleep apnea include a small lower jaw, huge tonsils, a narrow airway, or an unusually thick neck. 

We’ve already mentioned the common ones, such as a narrowed airway, being obese, and having a thick neck. However, being male, being older, and having family members with sleep apnea may also increase your risk.

More risk factors if you have central sleep apnea:

  • Time waits for nobody, and all of us get older each year.
  • Unfortunately, older people develop a higher risk for central sleep apnea.
  • Males are more prone to this condition than women.
  • Did you have a stroke? It increases your risk of developing central sleep apnea.
  • Opioid medication, especially the long-acting ones, may have an effect.
  • Congestive heart failure increases the risk.

More risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Alcohol and sedatives can worsen obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Smokers, beware! Your risk is much higher than the average person’s.
  • There are a host of medical conditions that can increase your risk of getting sleep apnea. 
  • High blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases, hormonal disorders, and asthma are all culprits.
  • If you struggle to breathe through your nose, you are more likely to develop this condition.

What If I Am Genetically Prone?  

There are a few things that you can do:

  • Maintain a healthy exercise regime so that you can sleep well at night and help you maintain your weight.
  • Don’t use sleeping pills. It can overrelax the muscles in your throat, elevating the problem already lurking.
  • Limit your alcohol intake, especially just before going to bed.
  • Back-sleeping tends to worsen sleep apnea. Train yourself to sleep on your side.

Not Diagnosed Yet? 

One of the following symptoms may indicate that you need to go and see a doctor:

  • You are very tired during the day.
  • You have headaches – especially in the morning.
  • You frequently wake up at night.
  • You are irritable, forget things, or have difficulty concentrating during the day.
  • You snore, choke or gasp while sleeping.

Should you also be overweight, a qualified healthcare provider can diagnose based on your symptoms. Your provider can also refer you to a sleep specialist or prescribe a home sleep test to determine if you have sleep apnea.


Sleep apnea can have heredity components. However, health and everyday life factors have the most considerable effect on whether you get sleep apnea.

To answer the ‘Why me?’ question: It is conceivable that your doctor would be able to identify possible risk factors that contributed to your diagnosis. In some cases, sleep apnea can be reversible – in others, not.

However, the important thing is not to see it as a death warrant. Once diagnosed, there is a lot that your healthcare provider can do for you. It will get better, you’ll see!

Based in South Africa, Helena Bester is a medical research author specializing in Sleep Disorders, Obstructive Sleep Apnea and CPAP therapy.
Nov 18th 2022

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