Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

A fairly common sleeping disorder that is estimated to affect more than 22 million Americans (most of whom remain undiagnosed), sleep apnea is a dangerous condition that can cause a myriad of other health problems. In fact, sleep apnea has been linked to heart disease and other health issues that can even lead to a premature death.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Simply defined, sleep apnea is a condition where the airway is blocked and the affected person stops breathing periodically throughout times of sleep. This condition is most commonly Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) which means that there is some physical blockage that stops the air from getting through. This may be related to an enlarged neck or swollen tongue, where sleeping on the back allows gravity to close up the airway. It could be due to swollen adenoids or an allergic reaction (particularly in children). Or it may be due to nasal obstructions such as sinus problems or deviated septum.

Another type of this condition, Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is caused by the brain failing to “tell” the muscles in the body that it is time to breathe regularly. This is a less common condition and may be caused by brain infections, stroke, narcotic medications, severe obesity, or conditions of the neck (cervical spine).

Certain risks may make people more likely to suffer from sleep apnea, including:

  • Obesity
  • Gender (significantly more sleep apnea sufferers are male)
  • Large Neck Size
  • Narrow nostrils, sinus, or nasal passages
  • High, narrow arch in the palate
  • Middle Age (can occur at any age but is more common in middle age)
  • Hypothyroidism (may cause enlarged tongue or throat blockage)

Can Sleep Apnea Be Inherited?

One common question people with sleep apnea ask is whether or not it can be inherited from their families. And the answer is yes. If you have a parent or other family member who has suffered from sleep apnea, then you are much more likely to be at increased risk for developing the condition yourself.

The good news is that, even if you have genetics playing against you, there’s no need to give up hope and resign yourself to a lifetime of sleep apnea. Education and awareness are a critical part of avoiding sleep apnea in the first place, and treating or reversing it if you are diagnosed with the condition.

Will I Get Sleep Apnea If My Parents Have It?

Sleep apnea is known to be a heritable condition, so people whose parents have it are at a higher risk of developing this sleeping disorder. However, some of the factors at play in the inheritance of the condition may be avoidable, and inherited less because of genetics and more because of physical characteristics which are inherited. This may include obesity, “floppy” upper airway tissue, and unhealthy sleeping patterns.

Obesity often plays a large role in the development of sleep apnea. People who are overweight, and those with a large neck circumference, are much more likely to be affected by sleep apnea. This may have to do with physical characteristics of putting on weight, but can also have to do with lifestyle choices such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and generally unhealthy life choices which lead to gaining weight.

Another inherited physical trait that may be passed down through heredity is that of a recessed jaw. This feature may create a physical difficulty that makes it harder for your body to keep the breathing airways open while you are sleeping. Sometimes a dentist can help to correct this in an effort to control sleep apnea.

How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Whether or not you have a family history of sleep apnea, if you begin to exhibit any symptoms that might lead you to believe that you have sleep apnea, it is important to set up an appointment with your physician or a sleep specialist. This will allow you to get a diagnosis and treatment if you need it.

Diagnosis is typically determined through a sleep study (polysomnogram) that is performed either on site in a sleep lab, or in your own home. Certain non-invasive tests will be run including tests to determine oxygen levels, heart rate, snoring, chest movements, limb movements, and air movement through the nose while breathing. Other items include recording brain activity, blood pressure, and eye movements.

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

Although sleep apnea can be dangerous if left undiagnosed, the good news is that the condition can often be managed with a combination of healthy lifestyle changes to lose weight, treatment with a breathing machine, and adjustments made to sleep on the sides or stomach instead of on the back.

People who have problems that cause sleep apnea, such as a deviated septum, enlarged adenoids, or recessed jaw may need to have surgery to correct the systemic issue before the sleep apnea can be resolved. But this is a less common situation and treatment is usually much less invasive than that.

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is a very common treatment for sleep apnea. This breathing machine sends air through a tube into the breathing passages, keeping them open so that the user continues breathing throughout the night. Your physician will provide you with details on how to set your CPAP machine based on the severity of your condition.

Other ways to counteract the effects of sleep apnea include trying to avoid sleeping on the back, which allows gravity to close the airways. Certain mattresses and pillows may help with the ability to sleep well without turning directly onto the back. This is especially helpful for people who need to use a CPAP machine in order to breathe well, but also have trouble finding a comfortable position for sleeping.


Although the condition of sleep apnea may be more prevalent in people whose family members who have it, it’s certainly not a guarantee that you’ll develop the condition too. However, if your parents or another family member have sleep apnea, then you should be aware of signs and symptoms and see a medical professional if you suspect that you have it.

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