Why Women Are at Higher Risk for Sleep Apnea

Some studies estimate that one in two women suffers from some form of sleep apnea. Here's what to know.

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obstructive sleep apnea

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.

Mark Burhenne DDS

Got more questions about sleep apnea? Ask me a question!

Read Next: What Women Need to Know About Sleep Apnea and Brain Health (Interview)

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  1. Where can I find the toothpaste recipe?

  2. This is exactly what happened to me. For years my doctor would not refer me for a sleep study because he believed that since I’m thin I couldn’t have sleep apnea. Even though it was so bad I would wake up at times straining for breath against a closed throat so hard I would have a sore neck and a headache. I finally was referred when I moved and began with a new doctor and I’ve been using cpap for 8 years now. I love my cpap! For the first time in my life I can sleep peacefully and can exercise and recover from it.

  3. Hello I have been clenching my teeth so bad for so long that almost all my back teeth are crowns. 4 years ago my dentist suggested a silent nite mouth guard after I had a sleep study done. I was all for it since it was a simpler answer to my problem. It seemed to work but in the morning my bite was off so I couldn’t eat for a couple hours. It would go back to normal but after 3 years it started to not go back. My back teeth were not coming together properly and my bottom front teeth were hitting the back of my front teeth. So his answer was to do an adjustment by grinding my teeth in certain places. Well I did not want that done so in the meantime I got on apap I still feel like I am clenching so I am wearing a mouthguard from the pharmacy. My jaw is better but now feel like it is too close because when I eat my back teeth sometimes clank together. So I am at a loss as what to do. If my jaw changed what would it be like if I had the adjustment done? I am 58 and weigh 135. I think I have had apnea since childhood because I remember waking up gasping for air. Don’t know what to do and I don’t think my dentist knows either. Is there some kind of specialist that would understand this problem. I don’t feel like it is tmj because I don’t have those symptoms. Thank you for your time.

  4. Great article! Thank you doctor! I was 72 when I was finally diagnosed. Most likely I had it all my life. I’ve been getting the word out because treatment has changed my life. I’ve shared this on my social media.

  5. Gaelle Gourgues says:

    Hello Dr. B. I am brought back to your site these past 3 weeks each time I am looking for MAD types or examples. I am trying to figure out how to narrow down the list of 76 maxillofacial and oral surgeons my insurance sent me. I live in 20 min outside of Boston, MA. My insurance will only pay for me to have an oral device for sleep apnea if go with these doctors. I have an HMO. All the dentists specializing in sleep study my sleep doctor sent me to are not part of my insurance network coverage. So, I am left on my own trying to figure out online who has sleep apnea as their specialty. None of the surgeons on that list are on the AADSM-Dentist search database.

    Questions: 1- Do maxillofacial and oral surgeons only treat sleep apnea with actual surgery? Or are they also offer MAD as an option to treat sleep apnea? 2-Beside the AADSM site or one of the MAD company sites, is there another way to figure out from the list provided from the insurance, who provide MAD as an option? It almost seems that I will need to call at least 15 doctor’s office from that list in order to possibly get an answer. I will also be contacting my ENT to see if he can help me.

    • Mark Burhenne, DDS says:

      Hi there,

      Yes, this is a common concern with HMO insurances. If you cannot wait until the enrollment period to change plans, you may want to ask your doctor for recommendations. AADSM Dentists are the best.

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