Understanding the Links Between Genetics and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Last updated: September 4th, 2023


Understanding Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Genetics

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that can significantly affect the quality of sleep, leading to fatigue and mood changes. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when airway becomes blocked during sleep, frequently causing interrupted rest. While many environmental factors can contribute to OSA, experts believe that genetics can also play a role in its development—some people are more likely to develop OSA if their parents or close family members have it. In this article, we’ll take a look at the potential links between genetics and sleep apnea.

About Obstructive Sleep Apnea

OSA is a sleep disorder in which the individual experiences frequent pauses in breathing during sleep, usually due to an obstruction in the upper airway. This obstruction causes the individual to struggle to breath and can often lead to snoring and feeling tired during the day. If left untreated, OSA can result in more serious health complications.

OSA can affect people of any age, though it can be more common in adults. The most common sign of OSA is loud snoring. Other signs can include repeated pauses in breathing, gasping for air, and periods of silence during sleep. An individual struggling with OSA might also complain of fatigue, irritability, mood changes, and difficulty concentrating.

What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

While OSA is often linked with lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol use, and obesity, genetics can also have an impact. Genetic factors, such as a person’s facial structure, body weight, and ethnicity, can all increase a person’s risk of developing OSA.

Body Weight

When it comes to sleep apnea, body weight can be a key factor. Obesity is a major risk factor for OSA, and those with higher body weights may have more severe cases of the disorder. Studies suggest that body fat percentage is up to 75% determined by genetics, and mutations inherited from parents can increase a person’s risk of obesity. Environmental factors, such as diet and exercise habits, may cause someone to gain weight, even if they have a genetic predisposition to it.

Oftentimes, losing weight can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing OSA or improve symptoms in those already suffering from the disorder. Both diet and exercise can be key components of a weight loss plan, which can help to support improved sleep quality.

Facial Structure

The size and shape of a person’s jaw, tongue, uvula, and tonsils can also increase their risk of OSA. Again, certain facial features may be determined by genetic markers and passed down through generations. Environmental factors, such as smoking and alcohol use, can also have an effect on a person’s facial structure.


Certain ethnicities, such as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, appear to be more prone to OSA. This may be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, as well as lifestyle habits. Further research is needed to confirm these links and determine how these factors interact.

How Are Sleep Apnea Tests Conducted?

If someone in your family has OSA, it may be beneficial to test for it yourself. Since many people with sleep apnea don’t show any obvious signs or symptoms, testing is the only definitive way to know if you have the disorder. Tests for OSA can typically be done either at home or in a sleep center.

Home tests use a portable device to measure oxygen levels, heart rates, and breathing patterns. Based on the data collected, these tests can usually give an indication of whether or not a person is at risk for OSA. Sleep centers provide an overnight monitoring experience, which can give a more comprehensive diagnosis of a person’s sleep patterns.


OSA tends to run in families, with genetics playing an important role in its development. Risk factors like facial structure, body weight, and ethnic background can all be partially determined by genetics. It’s important that those with a family history of sleep apnea get tested to determine if they, too, are at risk for the disorder. Home tests and sleep center visits can both be helpful in diagnosing OSA.

If you think you or someone you know may be at risk for OSA, be sure to speak with your doctor. They can help guide you toward the best treatment plan. Diet and exercise, when appropriate, may also be important for those struggling with sleep apnea.

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