How Common Is Sleep Apnea?

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

Nearly half of adults report snoring, the most common sign of sleep apnea. Between 5 and 12 percent of the US population, or about 30 million people, have sleep apnea. Many believe that sleep apnea is underreported.1-4

With sleep apnea, breathing is interrupted for short periods while a person sleeps. These periods last for at least 10 seconds. People with sleep apnea tend to snore loudly and make gasping or choking noises in their sleep. This occurs when their breathing is interrupted for short periods while sleeping. However, not everyone with sleep apnea snores.1-3

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when soft tissue temporarily blocks the airway during sleep. Central sleep apnea is rare. It is caused by a signal problem in the brain or the heart.4

Who gets sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is most common in adult men over age 40. However, women and children have sleep apnea too. Between 24 and 31 percent of men have sleep apnea compared to 9 to 21 percent of women. Rates of sleep apnea increase in women after menopause. Between 2 and 20 percent of children who snore frequently have sleep apnea.1,2

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People who have a greater risk of developing sleep apnea are those who:2,4,5

  • Are overweight
  • Are over age 40
  • Have a small airway, large tongue, or large tonsils
  • Have a recessed chin, small jaw, or large overbite
  • Have a large neck (over 17 inches for men, 16 inches for women)
  • Smoke or drink alcohol
  • African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Hispanics
  • Have a family history of loud snoring or sleep apnea

Special populations with sleep apnea

Military veterans are especially vulnerable to sleep apnea. Studies show that 5 percent of everyone in the United States has sleep apnea, but some research shows that more than 20 percent of veterans do. This number is also higher among service members who have been injured.6

African Americans under age 35 are more likely to have sleep apnea than Caucasians of the same age, no matter what their weight. People in Asian countries have similar rates of sleep apnea to the U.S. even though those countries have lower rates of obesity.5

People with certain chronic health conditions have an increased chance of developing sleep apnea, including those with:5

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

Pregnant women may also develop sleep apnea, especially in the third trimester.5

What is the economic cost of sleep apnea?

Undiagnosed sleep apnea costs about $150 billion a year in lost productivity, motor vehicle accidents, and workplace accidents. Untreated sleep apnea also increases the chances of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and depression, all costly health conditions. Treating sleep apnea would save $100 billion each year, according to a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.7

Is sleep apnea becoming more common?

Doctors believe sleep apnea is becoming more common in the United States and United Kingdom as the rates of obesity grow. Rates of sleep apnea have increased in both men and women over the last 30 years. The good news is that doctors and the public have become more aware of the long-term health dangers of untreated sleep apnea, and more people are seeking help.8