Is Sleep Apnea Genetic? Find Your Answer Here

sleep apnea genetic

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleeping disorder that gives patients a hard time breathing at night. It is caused by a collapse in the airway, resulting in an absent or reduced airflow at the mouth and nose.

OSA affects the lives of 2-4% of adults in the United States. It makes their nights restless and sometimes forces them to wake up gasping or choking for air. The impact of sleep apnea doesn’t stop there, though. It also makes patients feel fatigue during the day, irritable, and unfocused (which also increases their risk or road accidents).

The implications of sleep apnea can get extremely serious — it can lead to heart issues, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, mental and liver problems. But could your obstructive sleep apnea have been inherited from a previous generation? Find Out below…

 Do People Inherit Sleep Apnea?

There are several causes of sleep apnea, it’s not limited only to the blockage of airways, but rather occurs as a result of interrelated factors. The most common one is obesity,  as well as gender and age.  

Around 60–90% of sleep apnea patients are morbidly obese, but it doesn’t mean that all obese people are affected by sleep apnea. OSA is 2-3 times as prevalent in men as it is in women, risk in women rises after menopause and with increasing BMI.

Other factors that can cause sleep apnea are race, craniofacial abnormalities, congenital conditions (like Down’s and Marfan’s syndromes),and certain acquired conditions (like acromegaly and  hypothyroidism)

Some environmental factors can make sleep apnea worse, like drinking alcohol (which causes the genioglossus muscle to be less active), tobacco use, sleep deprivation, allergies, and sedative use.

Finally, substantial variability in the aetiology of obstructive sleep apnea is concealed by the age of onset. The occurrence of paediatric onset sleep apnea and associated complications is comparable to that of adult onset illness.

Most cases involve enlarged tonsils, soft palates , and adenoids, which makes the upper airways narrower. Such cases can be improved with tonsillectomy.

Genes are suggested to play a role in sleep apnea. For more than 30 years, familial aggregation of obstructive sleep apnea has been documented, with almost 43 percent of children with OSA in one research having at least one family member with symptoms of sleep apnea. The genetic component of obstructive sleep apnea is believed to be 40%, while the rest are environmental-related factors.

Overall, there’s a heterogeneity in the causes of OSA, meaning that there’s no single phenotype, it rather arises due to one or more factors. It’s a genetically complex disorder that can be a result of many environmental and genetic factors. 

Thousands of samples with whole-genome sequencing data will most likely be used in the future for gene identification in a complex disorder like OSA. 

In a study on sleep apnea in twins, it was found that OSA is 73% heritable among twins. On the other hand, daytime sleepiness was found to be linked to environmental factors like exercising and alcohol and salt intake.

Twin, familia and race studies have shown evidence for a possible link between sleep apnea and genes, and also some of sleep apnea risk factors are determined by genes. Genetic factors account for approximately 35-40% of its variance. 

The obstructive sleep apnea phenotype is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic factors related to body fat distribution, craniofacial structure, and upper airway muscles’ neural control .

While there’s noticeable progress in studying the genetic basis of other sleep disorders like narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome (RLS), obstructive sleep apnea’s genetic basis is yet to be fully determined. 

New techniques combining in silico research and sequencing technology, as well as ongoing work in GWAS and international collaboration and cooperation give us reason to be optimistic about defining the genetic basis of OSA during the next decade. 

This knowledge can let us better understand the disorder and potentially create better ways of treatment.

Key Takeaways

Sleep disorders are a common condition and have significant health implications on patients. There are many studies that have been conducted to link the two, but the majority of them failed to prove the role of genetics in sleep apnea. 

On the other hand, there is still some evidence that OSA could be genetic, according to studies on twins, family, and people of different races. These studies showed that genes can affect the  craniofacial structure and fat distribution in our bodies, as well as the control of the upper airway muscles, and since sleep apnea is sometimes caused by the structure of our face, cranium, and obesity, sleep apnea may well be hereditary as well in some cases. 

It’s important to know more about sleep apnea’s genetic risk factors, as it’s a first step towards developing predictive models, enabling us to diagnose and treat the disorder in its early stages. This can ultimately reduce the OSA’s health concerns in people who are at increased risk.




Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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