Sleep apnea risks

a woman at home just waking up

As we get older, the quality of our sleep tends to suffer. You may find that you’re not able to get the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep a day¹ or that your sleep is interrupted. If you’re not able to get a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor. One reason for poor quality sleep could be sleep apnea. When you have sleep apnea, your breathing stops temporarily and then starts up again while you sleep. This can happen more than 30 times an hour, lowering the quality of your sleep.² Even if you had the recommended hours of sleep, instead of feeling refreshed, you may wake up with a headache and could be tired and irritable.

Who gets sleep apnea?

Anyone can have sleep apnea, but it is more common among middle-aged and older adults. About 5%–10% of adults have sleep apnea, although many don’t realize it and go undiagnosed. It affects males 2–3 times more than females, and it affects African Americans at a younger age. Other risk factors include being overweight, having a thick neck of more than 17 inches for men or 16 inches for women, having a narrowed airway, drinking excessively and smoking.³

Symptoms of sleep apnea

Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

• Sleepiness during the day 

• Loud snoring 

• Headaches in the morning 

• Trouble thinking or concentrating 

• Depression 

• Irritability

Left untreated, sleep apnea can be a danger to you and those around you. Being sleepy during the day can leave you distracted and unfocused, or your partner may suffer from your grouchy moods and loud snoring. Sleep apnea can have an impact on your heart and increase your risk for stroke, obesity, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure.⁴

Types of sleep apnea

There are several types of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax. When they relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in. This prevents you from getting enough air in and lowers the level of oxygen in your blood. Your brain senses your lack of breath and briefly wakes you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. You usually don’t remember waking, since the awakening is so brief. The other less common type of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea. This occurs when your brain fails to transmit signals that control your breathing.⁵


One of the most popular treatments for OSA is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A CPAP machine is a device with a face mask attached to a small pump. It blows air into your throat, increasing air pressure and preventing the airway from narrowing. The CPAP machine also comes in a nonmask version with tubes that fit over your nose. If used correctly, it can be highly effective.⁶ Other types of treatment include dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and tongue, surgery, nasal expiratory positive airway pressure and hypoglossal nerve stimulation. If you’re uncomfortable using these devices, lifestyle changes may help reduce symptoms of sleep apnea, including losing weight if you’re overweight, avoiding alcohol and quitting smoking. You can also try lying on your side when sleeping, as this may help lessen snoring and breathing problems.⁷

Do you have trouble sleeping at night or staying awake during the day?

Take our quiz to see if you’re at risk for sleep apnea


  1. “How many hours of sleep are enough for good health?,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed November 15, 2019,
  2. “Sleep Apnea,” MedlinePlus, last accessed April 22, 2019,
  3. “Sleep Apnea,” National Sleep Foundation, last accessed April 22, 2019,
  4. “Sleep Apnea ,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed April 22, 2019,
  5. “Sleep Apnea ,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed April 22, 2019,
  6. “Sleep Apnea,” National Sleep Foundation, last accessed April 22, 2019,
  7. “Sleep Apnea,” National Sleep Foundation, last accessed April 22, 2019,

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