When thinking about a typical sleep apnea patient, what comes to your mind is probably an overweight middle-aged male. The reason for this is that obstructive sleep apnea is considered to be a men’s health problem. However, in reality, women are also prone to developing sleep apnea. Nowadays, the number of women with sleep apnea is almost similar to the number of men with the same issue. But this isn’t the only stereotype which is now broken. Most of the people with sleep apnea are neither overweight, not over than 50. In fact, some of the women are pregnant, health-conscious, and take active care of themselves, but still face this serious sleep disorder.
Nevertheless, women experience different obstructive sleep apnea symptoms than men, which means that most OSA cases in women are left undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with another condition. Gender differences in sleep apnea are a real issue and women are at greater risk of developing other health issues triggered by sleep apnea. So, having this in mind requires taking a closer look at sleep apnea in women. Hence, let’s see how women experience sleep apnea, what are the possible risks they can encounter, and what treatments are most suitable for them.
How Common is Sleep Apnea in Women?
We have seen a significant change in sleep apnea incidence in women in recent years. Some older studies suggested that men were as much as 9 times as likely to have sleep apnea as women. However, today we know that women commonly deal with sleep apnea and the gap between men and women is no longer that large. Nowadays, it has been estimated that men are 2 or 3 times as likely to experience sleep apnea as women, but the gap closes as women age and enter menopause.
The diagnosis rate among women is still very destitute, but that rate is expected to improve in the upcoming years. A recent study has demonstrated that 6 percent of women of all ages have moderate or severe sleep apnea and an additional 5 percent of women have a mild form of obstructive sleep apnea. Just for comparison, the numbers for men were 13 percent with moderate to severe OSA, and an additional 14 percent with mild sleep apnea. Additionally, the research has shown that by the age of menopause, more than 20 percent of women are likely to develop sleep apnea.
Likewise, another research indicates that about 1 in 4 women in the United States is at high risk for sleep apnea. What’s most surprising is the fact that about 90 percent of women with this sleep breathing disorder are living with it undiagnosed.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Risk Factors for Women
Some of the most common classic symptoms of sleep apnea include loud and frequent snoring, gasping, choking, and snoring sounds during sleep, need to urinate during the night, dry mouth and headaches in the morning, difficulty concentrating during the day, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
So, women might experience some, all or none of these symptoms. Some studies have suggested that chronic snoring and significant daytime sleepiness are the most common sleep apnea symptoms in women. Nevertheless, some women who have OSA might not experience any of these symptoms. Instead, they might experience completely different symptoms which aren’t usually connected to this sleep disorder, including:
- Trouble falling and staying asleep, which are characteristic for insomnia;
- Uncomfortable tingling in legs when sitting or resting in the evening, symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome;
- Restless sleep with frequent awakenings;
- Feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed;
- Changes to dreaming;
- A tendency to be accident-prone;
Therefore, if you experience any of these symptoms, you should talk to your physician. Additionally, you should also be aware that women who are overweight or obese are more prone to developing this sleep disorder. Besides being overweight, there are other risk factors for sleep apnea in women, such as:
- Having a family member with sleep apnea;
- Being a passionate smoker;
- Having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS);
- Being pregnant;
- Being in menopause;
Nevertheless, it is very common for women to experience more subtle signs of sleep apnea than men. Likewise, women often have their sleep condition undiagnosed as most of the sleep apnea symptoms are commonly attributed to anxiety, hypothyroidism, depression, insomnia, fibromyalgia, obesity, menopause, and high blood pressure. It is often the case that women who have sleep apnea also have one or some of these conditions. What’s more, having a severe sleep apnea might also contribute to the development of these health issues. That’s probably why sleep apnea in women often goes overlooked and undiagnosed.
If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can trigger a number of serious health risks, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, stroke, depression, and diabetes. Moreover, dealing with an untreated sleep disorder can increase the risk of accidents or be the culprit for problems with cognitive function.
Sleep Apnea Diagnosis and Treatment for Women
If you notice any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it’s very important to start ongoing conversations with your doctor. Make sure you share your mood, sleep changes, or any changes you might notice with your cognitive performance and your energy levels. You should be encouraged to undergo a sleep apnea screening and if you’re in perimenopause and menopause, you should be sent to sleep apnea screening, even in the absence of any symptoms.
To diagnose sleep apnea, your physician will probably recommend a home sleep test, which is an easy way to determine whether or not you have the condition in the comfort of your home. Plus, you will avoid the inconvenience of a single night in a sleep lab. So, as soon as the home sleep test is performed, your physician or sleep specialist will determine whether or not you have sleep apnea.
Treating this condition is now easier than ever. You will probably be recommended a continuous positive airway pressure therapy, or CPAP, which is the most effective treatment for moderate and severe sleep apnea. Using this machine regularly provides significant improvements for sleep apnea symptoms and reduces the risk of other serious health issues.
Latest research has shown that women are more likely to use CPAP when they have support from their partner. So, if you’re a woman who needs to start using CPAP, talk with your partner and ask him for support. On the other hand, if you have a woman to whom this therapy is prescribed, make sure to be her biggest support in the process. Women who use CPAP don’t only notice relief from their symptoms, but also experience higher sexual satisfaction and quality of life.
In addition to continuous positive airway pressure, there are oral appliances available which are suitable for mild and moderate sleep apnea, as well as for severe sleep apnea in patients who cannot tolerate CPAP. Your physician will help you determine which is the right treatment for your condition. You might also be asked to lose some weight, which can help you reduce or even eliminate the need for obstructive sleep apnea therapy.