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Women, Wake Up: Sleep Apnea is Not Just a Male Disorder

Sleep apnea is not just a male disorder. Women -- especially those with hypertension and/or obesity -- need to wake up to the dangers of OSA and seek treatment if diagnosed with it.
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Earlier this year, a particularly alarming statistic came out of Valme University Hospital in Seville, Spain, where researchers found that women with untreated severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are 3.5 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women without OSA. (Read a summary of the study here.)

Since then, more research has been published showing high rates of sleep apnea in women, as well as increasing links between OSA and age, obesity and hypertension.

In one new study published in August, researchers from Uppsala and Umeå University in Sweden analyzed 400 women between the ages of 20 and 70 years. They found that OSA was present in 50 percent of all the women participants aged 20 to 70 years.

They also found that 80 percent of women with hypertension and 84 percent of obese women suffered from sleep apnea. Of the obese women, 31 percent between age 55 and 70 had severe sleep apnea.

The alarming high percentages show that this should be a wake-up call to women. Sleep apnea is not just a male disorder. Women -- especially those with hypertension and/or obesity -- need to wake up to the dangers of OSA and seek treatment if diagnosed with it.

Even Dr. Karl Franklin, lead author of the Swedish study, was surprised by the findings. He said:

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. 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.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Franklin, and add to his point that individuals, not just doctors, also need to be aware and speak up if they suspect they may have sleep apnea and related conditions. Read a summary of the study.

A few more recent studies showing OSA's link to women's health issues:

A study published in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology out of the University of South Florida found that babies born to obese women with OSA were more likely to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit than babies born to women without OSA. In addition, the women with OSA were more likely to develop a high blood pressure condition during pregnancy known as preeclampsia, and to deliver their babies by cesarean section.

Read the study, entitled, "Sleep apnea in obese pregnancy women linked to poor maternal and neonatal outcomes," here.

In another study also published in September, sleep apnea in women has been linked to overactive bladder syndrome.

Researchers from the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, Spain gave 72 women a questionnaire regarding their bladder control and four specific symptoms. According to the results, 62 of the women polled were diagnosed with OSA. Further, the women with OSA scored higher on the questionnaire for the prevalence of bladder control symptoms, and the discomfort related with these symptoms.

More research is needed, but clearly, evidence is mounting showing the link between women and sleep apnea, and related disease and disorders. With one in four women over age 65 suffering from sleep apnea, according to the National Sleep Foundation, every woman who believes she is suffering from a sleep disorder-related condition should learn more and get checked out by a qualified sleep doctor. Many women are selfless caretakers, and will put their own worries or needs aside to take care of the needs of others. But don't wait: Your health is the most important thing, and the healthier you are, the more productive you'll be and the better you can care for your loved ones.

How do you know you may have obstructive sleep apnea? Some common symptoms include snoring, paused breathing during sleep and excessive sleepiness during the day. If you or someone you know is waking during the night gasping for air, that is a signal to seek diagnosis. Increased blood pressure is another sign you may have sleep apnea. For further study, read "Women and Sleep" on the National Sleep Foundation website.

When you go for an exam, be specific with your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing. While sleep apnea is more common in men, OSA increases in women after age 50. Many times, obstructive sleep apnea can be misdiagnosed in women as chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression, or some other non-specific condition. Also, some doctors still associate sleep apnea more with men than women, and are too quick to prescribe a medication, rather than do a full sleep disorder work-up. Be as clear and detailed as you can about your symptoms and what you are experiencing, and don't wait -- it could save your life.

For more by David Volpi, M.D., PC, FACS, click here.

For more on sleep, click here.