Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

The primary risk factor for OSA is excessive weight gain. The accumulation of fat on the sides of the upper airway causes it to become narrow and predisposed to closure when the muscles relax.

Age is another prominent risk factor. Loss of muscle mass is a common consequence of the aging process. If muscle mass decreases in the airway, it may be replaced with fat, leaving the airway narrow and soft. Men have a greater risk for OSA because male hormones can cause structural changes in the upper airway.

Other predisposing factors associated with OSA include:

  • Anatomic abnormalities, such as a receding chin
  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids, the main causes of OSA in children
  • Family history of OSA, although no genetic inheritance pattern has been proven
  • Medical conditions like hypothyroidism, acromegaly, amyloidosis, vocal cord paralysis, post-polio syndrome, neuromuscular disorders, Marfan's syndrome, and Down syndrome
  • Nasal congestion
  • Smoking (can cause inflammation, swelling, and narrowing of the upper airway)
  • Use of alcohol and sedative drugs, which relax the musculature in the surrounding upper airway

Studies have shown that the risk for obstructive sleep apnea is higher in patients who have recently experienced a heart attack. Some physicians recommend OSA screening in heart attack patients.

According to an article from our sister publication, Diabetes Focus Winter 2012 issue, sleep apnea appears to worsen during the winter months. Since this condition can boost your risk of heart attack, talk with your doctor if you:

  • nod off frequently during the day;
  • wake up often with a dry mouth or sore throat; or
  • experience morning headaches, moodiness, irritability, depression, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015