While there are several factors that can place someone at risk from sleep apnea, such as obesity, one of the questions we’re often asked is “Is sleep apnea hereditary?”

People can develop two different types of sleep apnea. Firstly, there is a condition known as Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) – it is where the brain can’t send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing during sleep. This condition makes normal restorative sleep impossible.

Secondly, and more commonly, there is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This occurs when the muscles – located at the back of the throat – fail to keep the airway open. As a result, breathing starts and stops multiple times during sleep. Stoppage of breath can occur as many as 30 times per hour and each stoppage usually lasts somewhere between 10 and 20 seconds.


So how serious is sleep apnea?

Just like smoking –where one cigarette is unlikely to lead to a person’s demise from lung cancer- it’s unlikely that a single pause of breath from an OSA sufferer will be the last breath that person takes. That doesn’t mean however that the condition isn’t serious.

On the contrary, if left untreated, sleep apnea can contribute to a wide number of very serious conditions including:

  • Heart failure
  • Chronic oxygen deprivation known as Hypoxemia and
  • Strokes


In addition, sleep apnea has also been heavily linked to conditions like:

  • Chronic fatigue – Increasing the risk of accidents
  • Alzheimer’s disease and,
  • Depression

In other words, although sleep apnea in itself is not usually life threatening, it greatly increases the chances of developing one or more of the life-threatening conditions listed above.

So now we know how sleep apnea can be a trigger for a variety of serious diseases and problems, let’s return to the initial question – is sleep apnea hereditary?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the risks of sleep apnea can indeed be exacerbated by heredity. One study, for example, suggests that the siblings of sleep apnea sufferers are themselves 50% more likely to inherit the condition. However, is this a true picture? Are siblings of sleep apnea sufferers resigned to the condition?


Here’s what we do know…

We know for example that obstructive sleep apnea – the most common form of the problem – is a mechanical dysfunction of the upper airway. Therefore it stands to reason that the physiological make-up of a person or rather – the family resemblance – may contribute towards hereditary sleep apnea.

For example, if you develop one or more physical characteristics including:

  • Receding chin
  • Small jawline
  • Large overbite
  • Excessive fat tissue around the neck
  • Oversized tonsils or tongue
  • Narrow nasal or sinus passages
  • Rounded head
  • Very narrow nostrils
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It’s likely that you will carry a greater risk from developing sleep apnea than someone who doesn’t have any of these traits.

That said, don’t think that if you have one or more of the above characteristics, it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable happens.


Here’s the important part…

While it’s agreed that the likelihood of developing sleep apnea increases with the physical hereditary characteristics listed above, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is going to develop sleep apnea.

Instead, it’s thought that other lifestyle factors such as obesity also play a significant part.

Therefore, if you have one or more of the physical traits listed above, you eat a high-calorie diet, and you adopt a sedentary lifestyle, for example, then the likelihood of developing sleep apnea will increase.

So while you can’t control your physical make-up (the way you look) you do have control over other predisposing factors. Getting regular exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy weight are just some of the ways that you can take action to prevent sleep apnea and/or obesity from occurring.


The good news

Don’t despair if someone in your immediate family suffers from sleep apnea. If you control one or more of the lifestyle and environmental factors which are thought to be linked with the problem, then you won’t necessarily be predisposed to developing sleep apnea.

In other words, look to control the things you can control and there is every chance that you can live a healthy, happy and long life.

If you are concerned about the possibility or developing sleep apnea or already feel that you have some of the symptoms related to the problem, then it’s always a good idea to speak to a dental sleep clinic.

Here at the Melbourne Dental Sleep Clinic, we take a special interest in the effects that sleep apnea and other sleep-related issues have on – not only your teeth and gums – but on your physical wellbeing too. We can help to answer many of your questions including “Is sleep apnea hereditary?” and refer you to a sleep specialist for sleep studies where necessary.


Call Dr Damian Teo and his highly-experienced team today. We will be glad to talk to you in Footscray, Niddrie and Armadale and assist you manage your sleep apnea problems.

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