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Is Sleep Apnea Genetic? Exploring the Hereditary Factors

Sleep apnea is a common yet underdiagnosed sleep disorder that interrupts breathing while sleeping, leading to poor sleep quality, daytime fatigue, and increased health risks.

Unfortunately, many people suffering from symptoms like loud snoring, breathing pauses, and chronic exhaustion don’t realize they may have sleep apnea. 

This lack of awareness means this treatable condition often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

The good news is that an increased understanding of sleep apnea, its causes, and available treatment options leads more people to get the help they need for better sleep and health. 

Recent research has also uncovered fascinating insights into potential genetic and hereditary links related to sleep apnea risk.

This article will explore the role of genetics in sleep apnea, looking at evidence for hereditary factors, racial disparities, overlaps with other conditions, and specific risks and causes for obstructive and central sleep apnea

Discover the latest science about the intriguing genetic puzzle behind this prevalent sleep disorder.

Understanding Sleep Apnea and Its Genetic Link

Sleep apnea, a prevalent sleep disorder, interrupts your breathing while you’re asleep. 

This condition can cause loud snoring, daytime fatigue, morning headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

But that’s just the beginning. 

Over time, the disorder can lead to more serious concerns, such as sexual dysfunction, mood disorders, and even increased risk of cardiac events.

The Role of Genetics in Obstructive Sleep Apnea

A large proportion of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is thought to be affected by hereditary components. 

Research indicates that around 40% of the variance in how often people stop breathing during their slumber could be attributed to their genes.

We’ll talk about this in greater depth later. 

Still, your genetic code influences body weight distribution, airway size or susceptibility towards blockage, facial structure and skull shape, and even respiratory control systems, impacting how well one breathes when sleeping. 

A 2019 study out of Hungary which analyzed sleep apnea cases among adult twists suggests that there is not only a genetic link to OSA development but that your genes can even influence the severity of your OSA symptoms.

While there isn’t necessarily a “sleep apnea gene” that can directly lead to sleep apnea development, there are numerous other health factors your genetics undoubtedly play a role in that could lead to the onset of sleep apnea—particularly obstructive sleep apnea.

Comparing Genetic Influences on OSA vs Central Sleep Apnea

In contrast with OSA, where physical obstructions lead to interrupted airflow despite efforts made for respiration, Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA) involves the brain’s failure to send appropriate signals controlling your breathing while asleep.

This difference suggests distinct underlying mechanisms between these two types leading. 

Research on genetic influence in developing CSA is limited, and studies have not yielded consistent results. 

This means you’re likely to find mixed signals on whether or not having relatives who live with the condition themselves will increase the risk of you developing the condition. 

While it’s clear a significant correlation exists between genes and the development of OSA, the exact nature of this correlation in CSA continues to be explored through ongoing studies.

Potential Gene Candidates Linked to Intermittent Hypoxia

Intermittent hypoxia, which refers to repeated episodes of low oxygen levels during sleep, is a key characteristic of OSA. 

Certain gene variations, including variations in the SERPINA1 and EPAS1 genes, may influence an individual’s susceptibility to OSA and intermittent hypoxia.

The SERPINA1 gene codes for alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein that helps to protect the lungs from damage. 

Studies have shown that people with certain variations in the SERPINA1 gene are more likely to develop OSA and intermittent hypoxia.

The EPAS1 gene, also known as HIF-2α, helps the body respond to low oxygen levels. 

While research is still limited on exactly how the EPAS1 gene is related to OSA, we know that HIFs play a role in OSA, and there may be a connection between the EPAS1 gene and this condition.

The exact mechanisms by which the SERPINA1 and EPAS1 genes influence OSA and intermittent hypoxia are not fully understood. 

However, these genes may affect how the body responds to inflammation and oxidative stress. 

These factors are thought to play a role in developing OSA and intermittent hypoxia.

More research is needed to understand better the role of the SERPINA1 and EPAS1 genes in OSA and intermittent hypoxia. 

Unraveling Overlapping Genetics between OSA and Other Conditions

The genetic factors contributing to Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) are multifaceted, with possible overlapping genes related to other health conditions. 

This could explain why individuals suffering from OSA often experience additional health issues. 

However, it can also create confusion when determining if genes directly or indirectly influence whether sleep apnea occurs.

A myriad of studies have drawn attention to potential links between sleep apnea hereditary influences and those implicated in metabolic syndromes such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. 

For instance, one research study found that specific gene variants linked to body mass index (BMI) were also associated with an increased risk of developing obstructive sleep apnoea.

In addition to BMI-related genes being a high genetic association factor, there’s evidence suggesting that inflammation-related genes play a role in sleep disorders like central or complex sleep apneas and heart disease.

A 2019 study of adult twins also found a significant correlation between genetics and development of OSA, high blood pressure, and diabetes—but as it looked at multiple conditions.

While pinpointing a genetic component that directly causes obstructive sleep apnea might have so far eluded scientists, the evidence is clear that your genetic makeup plays a role in the development of many conditions that can lead to the development of sleep apnea or might exacerbate apnea symptoms.

Causes & Risk Factors for Different Types of Sleep Apnea

Now that we’ve established that the world of sleep disorders is complex and that genetics play a role—often indirectly—in the development of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea, we can look at some of the individual risk factors for each so you can determine which might be relevant for you to monitor or consider.

Risk Factors Involved in the Development of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

In the case of OSA, a variety of elements come into play. 

It is important to note that only some people with these risk factors for sleep apnea will develop the condition. 

However, if you experience several of the following symptoms, it could be cause to consult with your primary care provider or family doctor.

  • Obesity: Too much body fat can narrow the airways and make breathing harder during sleep.
  • Neck size: A larger neck can narrow the airways and make OSA more likely.
  • Family history: If your parents or siblings have OSA, you are also more likely to develop it.
  • Age: OSA is most common in adults but sleep apnea in children can occur as well.
  • Sex: Men are more likely to develop OSA than women.
  • Smoking: Smoking can irritate the airways and make OSA worse.
  • Alcohol use: Alcohol can relax the muscles in the throat and make it more likely for the airway to collapse during sleep.
  • Nasal allergies: Allergies can cause nose and throat swelling, making it harder to breathe during sleep.
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids: These are two small tissues located at the back of the throat. If they are enlarged, they can block the airway during sleep.

You can dive deeper into these risk factors and considerations in our guide to sleep apnea symptoms and our article, “Demystifying Sleep Apnea.”

Underlying Causes Behind Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Moving on from physical blockages leading up to OSA, we land upon CSA, which originates primarily from issues within our brain’s control centers responsible for regulating respiration while sleeping. 

It all boils down to imbalances within respiratory control centers in our brainstem, causing them not to send signals properly, resulting in irregular breathing.

If you are experiencing or have experienced the following, you could be at increased genetic risk for central sleep apnea.

  • Heart disease: CSA is more common in people with heart disease, such as heart failure or arrhythmia.
  • Stroke: CSA is also more common in people who have had a stroke.
  • Brain injury: CSA can be caused by a brain injury, such as a traumatic brain injury or a tumour.
  • High altitude: CSA is more common in people who live at high altitudes, where the air is thinner and there is less oxygen.
  • Medications: Some medications, such as opioids and sedatives, can cause CSA.
  • Neuromuscular disorders: CSA is more common in people with neuromuscular disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and muscular dystrophy.

For more information, consult our guide comparing CSA and OSA and our guide to central sleep apnea.

When Should You Consult Your Doctor About Sleep Disorder Possibilities?

Sleep apnea is a surprisingly common condition. 

A 2019 study in Lancet estimates that approximately 936 million adults worldwide between 30 and 69 years old experience mild to severe sleep apnea symptoms annually.

Yet, despite this prevalence, the same study estimates that 80 to 90 percent of cases worldwide go undiagnosed.

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition, but it is treatable, and symptoms are easily managed with modern PAP therapy options. 

You can live a long and healthy life with early diagnosis and treatment.

You should consider consulting your doctor about your sleep apnea symptoms if you experience any of the following:

  • Snoring loudly: Snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea, but it is not always a sign of a severe problem. However, if you snore loudly and regularly, or if your snoring accompanies other sleep apnea symptoms, such as gasping for air during sleep or daytime fatigue, it is crucial to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Gasping for air during sleep: If you wake up gasping for air or feeling like you are choking, it could be a sign of sleep apnea. Your bed partner may witness these episodes.
  • Daytime fatigue: If you feel tired during the day, even after a full night’s sleep, it could be a sign of sleep apnea. Daytime fatigue can interfere with your work, school, and other activities.
  • Morning headaches: Morning headaches are another common symptom of sleep apnea.
  • Awakening with a dry mouth: If you wake up with a dry mouth, it could be a sign that you are not getting enough oxygen during sleep.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Sleep apnea can make it difficult to focus and pay attention.
  • Irritability: Sleep apnea can also cause irritability and mood changes.

FAQs About Whether Sleep Apnea Is Genetic

Is Sleep Apnea Genetic or Hereditary?

Sleep apnea has a strong hereditary component, with genetics accounting for about 40% of the differences in the number of times people stop breathing during their sleep, according to recent studies.

Who is Most Likely to Develop Sleep Apnea?

Those who are overweight, older adults, males, smokers, and individuals with a family history of sleep apnea have an increased risk of developing this disorder.

Are You Born with Apnea?

No, you aren’t necessarily born with it. However, certain genetic factors can predispose someone to develop obstructive or central sleep apnea later in life.

What is the Root Cause of Sleep Apnea?

The primary cause varies between types. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when throat muscles relax, blocking airways, while central sleep apnea (CSA) happens because the brain fails to send proper signals to muscles controlling breathing.

Are there any genetic tests for sleep apnea?

Currently, there are no genetic tests that can diagnose sleep apnea. A sleep study is currently the gold standard. However, genetic testing is being researched to better understand the genetic factors contributing to sleep apnea risk.

If I have sleep apnea, does that mean my children will have it too?

Having sleep apnea does increase your children’s risk, but it does not mean they will develop it. Lifestyle factors like weight and health habits also play a role. 

If you have OSA, talking to your doctor about screening your child can help detect issues early.

Are there any genetic or hereditary links between sleep apnea and insomnia?

There may be some genetic overlap between sleep apnea and insomnia. Specific genes related to sleep and wake cycles may contribute to both conditions. However, more research is needed to understand this relationship fully.

Can healthy lifestyle changes impact your genetic risk for sleep apnea?

Yes, living an overall healthy lifestyle can help mitigate inherited sleep apnea risks. Maintaining healthy body weight, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and managing other health conditions can all help lower risks.


The intricacies of sleep apnea genetics highlight how complex this prevalent disorder can be. 

While hereditary links are being uncovered, there is still much to learn about the precise molecular mechanisms involved. 

However, one thing is clear—sleep apnea’s impact on health is formidable.

Don’t wait to take action if you see yourself reflected in the risk factors and symptoms described in this article. 

Consult your doctor or sleep medicine specialist to explore whether sleep testing may be warranted. 

With accurate diagnosis, creating an effective treatment plan becomes possible.

Modern PAP therapy delivers proven results for sleep apnea management. 

Working with a trusted CPAP supply provider ensures you get the equipment, education and support needed to stick with therapy for the long haul. 

CPAP Supply has helped thousands of Canadians improve their sleep and health. 

Our customer focus provides care, understanding, and follow-up that makes all the difference.

While the genetic odds may seem stacked against you, knowledge and treatment empower you to overcome. 

Don’t let sleep apnea deter you from claiming the restorative sleep you deserve. 

Relief is within reach.

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