Millions of Americans have sleep apnea—a chronic disorder that causes you to stop breathing in your sleep. There are various risk factors that can lead to sleep apnea, including obesity and smoking, but genetics may also play a role.
In extremely rare cases, genetics leads to central sleep apnea, but genes are a much more common culprit in obstructive sleep apnea. Some studies estimate that nearly 75% of people with obstructive sleep apnea inherited the disorder in some way.
This article explores the different types of sleep apnea, its connection with genetics, and what to expect with a sleep apnea diagnosis.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
It is a chronic condition that causes interruption of breathing while sleeping. These disruptions can last for 10 seconds or more, and occur several times an hour. In severe cases of sleep apnea, your breathing could stop hundreds of times in a single night.
Central vs Obstructive Sleep Apnea
There are three types of sleep apnea—central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea.
- Central sleep apnea
Disruption of our respiratory system due to the signals sent by our brain leads to central sleep apnea. This causes pauses in your breathing.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea
With obstructive sleep apnea, obesity or abnormal structures in the mouth or throat cause your airway to become partially or even completely blocked. When this happens, your breathing can stop.
- Complex sleep apnea
It is a combination of both central and obstructive sleep apnea.
The main symptom of sleep apnea is a pause in your breathing during sleep. However, there are a number of other issues that can signal this disorder as well, including:
- Choking or gasping sounds
- Frequent waking at night
- A dry mouth when you wake up
- Morning headaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Daytime sleepiness
- Mood changes or depression
Sleep apnea diagnosis is usually made with a sleep study. In this study, called a polysomnograph, you will need to spend several hours asleep in a lab while different measurements of your health are taken. Not only this, your heart rate, movements, and breathing patterns will all be observed, and your healthcare provider will use this information to diagnose and rate your level of sleep apnea.
These tests can also provide clues as to what type of sleep apnea you have. Testing your brain waves and nerve signals during your sleep study can identify central sleep apnea.
Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?
Genetics can play a role in some types of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea usually has non-genetic causes that are not hereditary. Obstructive sleep apnea, on the other hand, can be linked to genetics in several ways.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea is usually a direct result of signal interruptions that are sent to your respiratory system to take breaths while you sleep. There is a rare type of central sleep apnea, called Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS) that is genetic, but in most cases, this type of sleep apnea is caused by other factors like:
- Narcotics or other drug use
- Head trauma
- Brain tumors
- Heart conditions
- Neuromuscular disease
Some of these things, like heart conditions and neuromuscular disease, can be inherited, but sleep apnea itself isn’t caused by a particular gene with these conditions.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Unlike central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea is linked to genetics in several ways.
First, many of the risk factors that can lead to sleep apnea—like high blood pressure and heart disease—carry a hereditary component to them. If you have a family history of conditions that increase your risk for sleep apnea, you should talk to your healthcare provider about any symptoms you might be having.
On top of an increased risk from these inherited conditions, there are also specific genes that have been linked to the development of sleep apnea. These include:
- Angiopoietin-2 gene (ANGPT2)
- −308G/A polymorphism of the tumor necrosis factor-α (TNFα)
- Prostaglandin E2 receptor EP3 subtype (PTGER3)
- Lysophosphatidic acid receptor 1 (LPAR1)
- G-protein receptor gene (GPR83)
- β-arrestin 1 gene (ARRB1)
- Dopamine receptor D1 encoding gene (DRD1)
- Serotonin receptor encoding gene (HTR2A)
Even though some cases of obstructive sleep apnea are hereditary, genetics are not the only cause. Other causes of sleep apnea include:
- Endocrine disorders
- Neuromuscular conditions
- Heart failure
- Kidney disease
- Enlarged tonsils
- Abnormal physical structures in the mouth or throat
Even without a structural or genetic condition, there are other disorders or diseases that can increase your risk of developing sleep apnea. More than 80% of people with sleep apnea have other medical conditions like:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Metabolic syndrome
- Kidney disease
Lifestyle choices can also put you at risk of developing sleep apnea. Some of these include:
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
When to Talk to Your Healthcare Provider
It can be hard to know that you have sleep apnea, especially if you live alone. In many cases, symptoms of sleep apnea are first noticed by a sleeping partner or household member. If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider for more testing.
There are some symptoms, though, that warrant quicker action. If you have symptoms like severe shortness of breath, confusion, blueish lips or nails, or you wake up with difficulty breathing, you should seek medical help right away.
While you can’t control the genetic predisposition to sleep apnea, you can make choices that can help you avoid developing conditions that increase your risk for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), like obesity and high blood pressure.
Some of the things you can do to reduce your risk of developing sleep apnea include:
- Avoid alcohol
- Don’t use sleep medications or muscle relaxers
- Quit smoking
- Lose weight
- Sleep on your side instead of your back