Gender Differences in Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Diagnosis
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is often thought of primarily as a men’s health problem. The truth is, anyone can have sleep apnea! However, signs and symptoms of sleep apnea may present differently in women than in men.
Unfortunately, little is known regarding how OSA affects men vs women, so there aren’t many sleep apnea gender stats that exist. Regarding the question of if women need more sleep than men, the answer is yes.
According to SleepFoundation.org, the average adult needs at least 7 hours of sleep per night to feel as if they’ve received adequate rest. Research suggests that women might need a little more than men. On average, women sleep 11 minutes longer.
As mentioned in the excerpt above, when it comes to gender and sleep, women require more sleep than men. Getting enough rest is essential for both mental and physical health, so it’s crucial for people of both genders to make sleep a priority and cultivate a restful sleeping environment.
Even though sleep apnea affects both men and women equally, the causes and symptoms of this condition may be different for men and women. Let’s take a look at how OSA affects men.
Approximately 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and of those, 1 in 4 are comprised of middle-aged men. The most common signs and symptoms of OSA – seen very often in men – include:
- Loud snoring
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Morning headaches and/or morning dry mouth
- Gasping for breath during sleep
- Repeated episodes during which you stop breathing while asleep (usually reported by a bed partner)
- Decreased libido
- Difficulty focusing while awake
- Frequent nighttime urination
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
Several factors can put individuals at increased risk for OSA. These again are more commonly seen in men, and include but are not limited to:
- Excess weight/obesity
- Large neck circumference
- A narrowed airway
- Family history of OSA
It must be noted that the signs, symptoms, and risk factors listed above, though most commonly presented in men, are potential indicators of Obstructive Sleep Apnea for both men and women. Each, or a combination of any, is a reason to talk to your doctor about getting tested and treated for OSA, potentially with a SomnoMed oral device.
We’ll also note, however, that if you’re a woman, you may be suffering from sleep apnea without experiencing any of the symptoms listed above. The signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in women are sometimes not the same as those experienced by men. We investigate what to look out for below.
Women and Sleep Apnea
Nearly 1 in 5 women have sleep apnea in the US – but about 9 in 10 women with sleep apnea don’t know they have it. For many women, signs of sleep apnea may be mistaken for menopause or depression, or there may not even be many obvious symptoms present at all.
Some overlap in OSA signs and symptoms commonly seen in both men and women include but are not limited to restless sleep, frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom, loud snoring, gasping for breath, and/or the repeated stopping of breathing while asleep. Less common signs of OSA in women may include:
- Nighttime heartburn
- Accident proneness
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Changes in dreaming
Women with sleep apnea also may not report the typical symptom of daytime sleepiness, which is commonly reported by men suffering from sleep apnea.
Even without common OSA symptoms, certain medical conditions experienced commonly by women can also automatically put them at higher risk for sleep apnea. Among these are Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), menopause, and hypothyroidism (low thyroid function).
Understanding the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI)
Although symptoms may present themselves differently in men vs women, the method of diagnosing OSA remains the same for both genders. Oftentimes, the primary measure doctors use is the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI) – a diagnostic tool that measures the severity of obstructive sleep apnea based on a numeric score. Typically, this is done during a sleep study where specialists monitor your breathing, brain activity, and heart rate as you sleep.
The above Sleep Apnea AHI Chart shows how doctors determine the severity of a person’s OSA. Mild OSA in an adult is based on a person experiencing at least 5 but no greater than 15 events per hour (AHI events occur when the airways partially collapse during sleep and prevent a person from breathing normally for at least 10 seconds.) Adults with moderate OSA experience at least 15 events per hour and severe OSA patients have 30 or more events per hour.
OSA Differences in Men Vs. Women
A growing body of evidence suggests that there are substantial differences between men and women in the signs and symptoms, diagnosis, and medical consequences of OSA. The common view of Obstructive Sleep Apnea as mainly a men’s disease could actually be a result of women frequently being misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed due to reporting different symptoms.
Moving forward, acquiring more knowledge of gender differences in OSA will help to improve the awareness and diagnosis of sleep apnea in women. Taking it one step further, the development and availability of therapeutic options that take into account differences in the physiology and presentation of OSA in different individuals – like Oral Appliance Therapy – could have the potential to greatly improve treatment outcomes for both men and women.
If any of what we’ve described above sounds like you or a loved one, we can help you get started on your path to effective sleep apnea treatment – and an overall healthier you!
Start your journey to a better night’s rest.