It used to be that if someone told you you snored, you shrugged it off as more of an annoyance to them than anything telling about your own health and wellbeing.
Today, we have a greater understanding of at least one potential risk of being a frequent snorer: You could have sleep apnea, a potentially harmful sleep disorder during which people stop breathing, sometimes hundreds of times a night.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea, and occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat collapse, causing the opening through which air passes to disappear. (Watch this video for an in-depth explanation of what happens during OSA.)
But certain people are more likely to experience this interruption of breathing than others. We asked Dr. Matthew Mingrone, lead physician for EOS Sleep Centers in California specializing in sleep apnea and snoring issues, to help explain why.
Likely the most indicative risk factor is carrying too much extra weight. Obese adults are seven times more likely to develop OSA than their normal-weight peers, according to WebMD. OSA is essentially a blockage of the upper airway, says Mingrone. Part of the tissue running from the nose to the voicebox collapses, cutting off the passage of oxygen. Excess weight adds to the pressure on tube, he says, making the diameter of the opening even smaller than it already is.
Obese people aren't the only demographic with larger-than-average necks. Consider the muscular build of professional athletes, for example, who aren't obese but thanks to muscle development are larger than us mere mortals.
Men with a neck circumference greater than 17 inches and women over 15 inches have a higher risk of OSA, WebMD reported.
People of any age can develop sleep apnea, but the condition is more common the older you get, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. "As we get older, we lose tone and elasticity as part of the normal aging process," says Mingrone. With that natural softening of the tissue in the throat, there's higher likelihood of collapse, he says.
It's not that you have a genetic predisposition to developing sleep apnea, says Mingrone, like a specific type of cancer that may run in families. Instead, it's likely that you've inherited certain aspects of your physical makeup that increase sleep apnea risk, he says. If Mom's being treated for sleep apnea and you've inherited her narrow jaw, you may have a similar doctor's visit in your future.
Because it's a muscle relaxant, alcohol too close to bedtime can lead to episodes of apnea, says Mingrone, even in someone who doesn't have OSA. And in those with the disorder, alcohol can lengthen the duration of apnea episodes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Current smokers are 2.5 times more likely to have OSA than smokers and nonsmokers combined, according to a 2001 study. "Smoking most airway tissue swell because it's an irritant," says Mingrone. Swelling in the nose and the throat further reduces the space for air to flow through.
Middle-aged men are twice as likely to have OSA than women of the same age, according to the American Lung Association. Mingrone says in his practice, about 15 to 20 percent of patients are female. The variance may be due again to anatomical differences, especially since men are simply bigger than women more often than not.