Sleep Apnea in Special Populations

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Nearly half of adults report snoring, the most common sign of sleep apnea. Between 18 and 29 million people have sleep apnea though many are undiagnosed and untreated.1-4

Sleep apnea is more common in some groups of people than others. It is found most often in adult men over age 40. However, women and children have sleep apnea too. Some ethnic groups are more likely to develop sleep apnea. Military veterans are another group more likely to develop sleep apnea.

Overall, people have a greater risk of developing sleep apnea if they are:2-4

  • Overweight
  • Over age 40
  • Military veterans
  • African Americans
  • Pregnant and menopausal women
  • Born with a narrow airway or small jaw

Military veterans with sleep apnea

Military service, whether at home or overseas, makes veterans more vulnerable to sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. In fact, studies show that 5 percent of everyone in the U.S. has sleep apnea, but 20 percent of veterans do.5

Doctors believe many veterans develop sleep apnea due to neurological or physical damage they suffer during their service, and sometimes from substance misuse. Not all cases are related to obesity, poor health, or getting older.6

African Americans with sleep apnea

African Americas under age 35 are more likely to have sleep apnea than Caucasians of the same age, no matter what their weight, income, or other markers of health. One study found that 95 percent of African Americans were undiagnosed and untreated. The same study found that snoring, higher body weight, and larger neck circumference were all important signs of sleep apnea, just as with other ethnic groups.4,7

Pregnancy and sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is quite common during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 women develop sleep apnea during pregnancy. Doctors believe pregnancy may cause sleep apnea for several reasons, including: weight gain, swelling, nasal congestion, or the growing baby pushing against organs. Sleep apnea may get worse in women who had the sleep disorder before getting pregnant.2,4

Sleep apnea during pregnancy has been linked to slow growth of the baby, preeclampsia, and high blood pressure in the mother.8,9

Menopause and sleep apnea

While sleep apnea is more common in men overall, the hormonal changes of menopause increase the rates of sleep apnea in older women. Untreated sleep apnea decreases the quality of sleep and increases the chances of developing heart disease. As with African Americans, women are less likely to be diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea compared to men.8

Children and sleep apnea

Between 2 and 20 percent of children who snore often have sleep apnea. It is most common in children between the ages of 2 and 6. Doctors believe sleep apnea is most often caused by being born with narrow airways or when infection enlarges the adenoids or tonsils. It can also run in families. In both children and adults, being overweight may cause sleep apnea.2,3,10

Sleep apnea creates slightly different problems in children than it does in adults. Daytime sleepiness is the main symptom in adults. Children are more likely to have behavior problems, hyperactive attention deficit disorder, and concentration problems in school.2,3,10

Other people with sleep apnea

People with certain chronic health conditions have an increased chance of developing sleep apnea, including those with:4

  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, or atrial fibrillation
  • Lung disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Thyroid disease

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