Why Women Are at Higher Risk for Sleep Apnea

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

Sleep apnea is a disorder that’s typically been associated with older, overweight men, but studies are finding more and more that women of all ages and sizes suffer from some form of obstructive sleep apnea, or interruptions in breathing during sleep. Young, healthy, and fit women often don’t get diagnosed because they don’t show the same warning signs.

One of the common indicators doctors use to detect sleep apnea is a large neck. But women with slim necks tend to get overlooked as candidates for sleep-disordered breathing and sleep apnea.

A small, narrow neck and mouth or slim jaws can make women more susceptible to having an airway that becomes blocked at night.

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recent study found that 50 percent of women between age 20 and 70 have some degree of sleep interruptions due to disordered breathing caused by obstructive sleep apnea, ranging from mild to severe.

I had always been confounded by the previous estimations that only five to six percent of people had sleep apnea since, in my practice, I see it’s much closer to around 18 percent.

Many women go most of their whole lives without realizing they have trouble breathing at night since their episodes of apnea (complete cessation of breathing) or hypopnea (partial cessation of breathing) don’t result in snoring or even tiredness. My wife Roseann is petite, 120 pounds, and the healthiest person you can imagine, yet she suffered for decades from severe obstructive sleep apnea, which wasn’t caught until her fifties since she didn’t exhibit signs of tiredness — in fact, quite the opposite! She’s dragging me out of bed at 5am most mornings for a Pilates or spin class.

The trouble is, even just a few breathing interruptions each night can be very harmful, increasing risks of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, and anxiety.

It’s worth the trouble to get tested. A simple monitoring device worn at home in your own bed overnight from a sleep clinic can help you verify your sleep ability — that is, your ability to sleep without breathing interruptions — easily.

And the good news is, for many women, the bulky, disruptive CPAP – which many, even severe OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) sufferers abandon — isn’t necessary in all cases. For women with mild to moderate sleep apnea, an oral appliance that fits like a retainer keeps the jaw forward enough to keep the airway open and eliminate breathing interruptions completely.

Obstructive sleep apnea in women is much more common than previously thought and severely under-diagnosed. You owe it to yourself to make sure you’re getting a healthy, restful sleep every night so you’re in top condition to face everything the day throws at you!

What You Can Do: The 3-Step CAR Method

Follow the CAR method to verify your sleep ability and ensure that your sleep isn’t interrupted. It could save your life!

  • Consider: Young, healthy people tend to blow off sleep. Don’t wait until it’s too late! Improving your sleep quality now could drastically change your life. Sleep is innate, but not guaranteed. Don’t be in denial!
  • Assess: Ask your dentist if you grind your teeth, a common red flag for sleep apnea and a somewhat easier indicator than the full-blown sleep study. Analyze your sleep with an app to record the noises that you make while you sleep. Tossing and turning, teeth grinding, snoring, moaning, talking, and other noises are all indications that your sleep might be getting interrupted each night. Or, skip the app and ask a sleeping partner or friend or family member to come into the room a few hours after you’ve fallen asleep and listen to you for ten minutes and report back.
  • Referral: Ask your doctor for a referral for a sleep study and to see a sleep specialist. Only an MD who specializes in sleep medicine can give you a proper diagnosis.
Learn More: What Women Need to Know About Sleep Apnea and Brain Health (Interview)

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