Men are generally thought to experience sleep apnea more than women, but a small new study suggests that high rates of women may still experience the condition.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep condition where a person suddenly stops breathing during sleep because of an obstructed airway, raising the risk of daytime sleepiness and even health conditions like depression.
"We were very surprised to find such a high occurrence of sleep apnea in women, as it is traditionally thought of as a male disorder," study researcher Karl Franklin said in a statement. "These findings suggest that clinicians should be particularly aware of the association between sleep apnea and obesity and hypertension, in order to identify patients who could also be suffering from the sleeping disorder."
The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal and conducted by researchers from the Uppsala and Umea University, included 400 women who were taken from a sample of 10,000 women between the ages of 20 and 70. The study participants answered questions about their sleep and health conditions, and underwent sleep testing.
The researchers found that of those 400 women, half of them experienced obstructive sleep apnea; 14 percent experienced severe sleep apnea. And the prevalence of sleep apnea was even higher among women who had hypertension (80 percent) and were obese (84 percent).
According to the American Lung Association's 2010 report, more than 12 million people in the United States have obstructive sleep apnea. It's estimated to affect one of every 25 middle-aged men, and one of every 50 middle-aged women.
Dr. Grace W. Plen, M.D., M.S., an assistant professor of medicine in the sleep medicine department at the University of Pennsylvania, told the National Sleep Foundation that sleep apnea may be underdiagnosed in women.
In earlier studies of patients coming in for evaluation for sleep apnea, the ratio of men to women has sometimes been extremely lopsided, with eight or nine men diagnosed with apnea for each woman found to have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). However, we know from studies in the general population that the actual ratio is likely to be closer to two or three men with OSA for each woman who has the condition.
Plen explained to the National Sleep Foundation that under-diagnosis for women may occur because doctors could have a stereotype of an overweight man in their minds when they think of a sleep apnea patient. Plus, women may have different symptoms of sleep apnea that aren't considered "typical."