Sleep apnea is a condition where you briefly stop breathing in your sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea:
- In central sleep apnea, your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing.
- In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of your throat relax too much, causing the throat to totally or partially close.
Both types of sleep apnea are caused by a mix of lifestyle factors that include:
- lifestyle factors
Some of the underlying causes of central sleep apnea, such as certain heart issues, may have a genetic component. However, most of the causes do not, and there’s little evidence that central sleep apnea itself is hereditary.
Risk factors for developing central sleep apnea
Risk factors of central sleep apnea include:
- being male
- having previously had a stroke
- congestive heart failure or other heart issues
- using opioids
Research suggests that obstructive sleep apnea is about 40 percent attributable to genetics, which means it can be hereditary.
The other 60 percent of underlying causes for obstructive sleep apnea are environmental or lifestyle-related.
The more relatives you have with obstructive sleep apnea, the higher your risk of developing the condition.
While research on obstructive sleep apnea seems to show a clear genetic link, scientists have not yet discovered exactly which genes are specifically responsible for the condition.
Additionally, it’s been shown that obesity can have underlying genetic causes. Since obesity is a major risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, this is an indirect way obstructive sleep apnea is hereditary.
Risk factors for developing obstructive sleep apnea
Risk factors for developing obstructive sleep apnea include:
- having a thicker neck, which may narrow your airway
- being male
- family history
- using alcohol or sedatives
- having a small lower jaw
- having large tonsils
- nasal congestion
Infant sleep apnea is a type of sleep apnea in children younger than 1 year old. It may be:
Symptoms of infant sleep apnea usually improve with age and include:
- temporary breathing stoppages during sleep
- bluish skin, mouth, and lips
- slow heart rate
The cause of infant sleep apnea is often unknown. Potential causes and risk factors include:
- being born prematurely
- not having a fully developed brainstem, which is the part of the brain that controls breathing
- an underlying medical condition, such as lung disease, an infection, metabolic disorders, or seizures
In rare cases, central infant sleep apnea may be hereditary.
And like adult obstructive sleep apnea, underlying risk factors for obstructive infant sleep apnea, such as a small airway, may be tied to genetics.
If you have at least some of the following symptoms, talk to a doctor about potential causes, including sleep apnea:
- daytime fatigue
- morning headaches
- choking or gasping in your sleep
- memory loss
- difficulty concentrating
- waking up in the middle of the night
Because loud snoring is often the main or most visible sleep apnea symptom, your partner may be the one to notice.
If your snoring wakes up other people, or keeps them awake, talk to a healthcare provider about this symptom. You can connect to a physician in your area using the Healthline FindCare tool.
A healthcare provider may be able to diagnose sleep apnea based on your symptoms. Some of the symptoms listed above could be enough for a diagnosis, especially if you have obesity.
In order to collect more information about what happens while you sleep, the doctor may ask for a sleep history not just from you, but also from someone who shares a bed or household with you.
They may refer you to a sleep specialist for evaluation.
An evaluation will include overnight monitoring, either at home or at a sleep center. During the evaluation, your heart rate, breathing, oxygen level, and other vital signs will be measured while you sleep.
If the doctor suspects obstructive sleep apnea, they may send you for an evaluation by an ear, nose, and throat doctor to look for causes of the obstruction.
If they think you have central sleep apnea, you may need an evaluation from a cardiologist or neurologist to look for an underlying cause.
There are many potential underlying causes of sleep apnea.
Health and lifestyle factors have the biggest effect on whether or not you may develop sleep apnea. But there may also be genetic causes for both central and obstructive sleep apnea.
It’s important to note that obstructive sleep apnea is much more likely to have underlying genetic causes than central sleep apnea.
The more relatives you have with obstructive sleep apnea, the more likely you are to develop the condition as well.