Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea. It is estimated that nearly one in 12 adults has OSA. OSA is especially common in people who are overweight, older, have diabetes, and have high blood pressure. However, anyone can have sleep apnea and as many as 20% of people with sleep apnea are not overweight. Once thought as mostly a men’s disorder, sleep apnea is now recognized to be common in women. The prevalence of sleep apnea increases in women after menopause. OSA affects people of all ethnic and racial groups. Recent research indicates that OSA is particularly common in people with Asian ancestry.
Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the throat closes frequently while sleeping. The nightly breathing cessations are due to the airway becoming “obstructed”. This restricted airway can result from a number of factors, including a narrow throat and a large tongue that blocks part of the airway while asleep. This closing prevents proper oxygen intake and each apnea can cause significant drops in the body’s level of oxygen. Drops in oxygen levels can cause stress on the heart, blood vessels, and impair brain function. Since the airway is severely restricted or obstructed, air must squeeze through a small area of the throat, which can cause loud snoring or the feeling of waking up gasping for air. People with OSA often snore through the night and wake up frequently because their body struggles to get air through the narrowed airway. In its severest form, this happens hundreds of times every night, which leaves the brain, heart, and lungs in a severe state of oxygen and sleep deprivation.
Most people with sleep apnea are not aware of the fact that they are repeatedly waking up in the middle of the night because they do not wake up fully and fall back asleep without realizing it. This may be one reason why more than 80 percent of potential sleep apnea cases go undiagnosed.