A new study suggests that the American obesity epidemic may have something to do with the rapidly rising number of sleep apnea cases.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which people have trouble staying in deep sleep because their throats close, blocking their airways and requiring them to partially awaken to start breathing again.
“There are probably 4 million to 5 million people who are more likely to have sleep apnea due to the obesity epidemic,” estimated Paul Peppard, Ph.D., an assistant professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s certainly an uncalculated cost of the obesity epidemic, an epidemic of its own.”
The findings show a big spike in sleep apnea cases over the past two decades — as much as 55 percent — and these figures may translate to the entire United States.
The study involved over 600 adults, ages 30 to 70, who underwent sleep tests between 1988 and 1994, with some continuing to take part along with hundreds of new participants from 2007 to 2010.
During the study, participants were considered to have moderate-to-severe breathing problems if they had trouble breathing 15 or more times an hour while sleeping.
Sleep apnea is the main cause of breathing problems during sleep. Sufferers don’t actually realize they’re waking up and may become very sleepy during the day.
Besides being tired, a person with sleep apnea can develop heart and other health problems if left untreated and increase the risk of work- and driving-related accidents, according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The researchers estimate that 10 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 currently have symptoms of sleep apnea. This number rises to 17 percent in men ages 50 to 70. For women, the estimate is 3 percent among ages 30 to 49 and 9 percent among women ages 50 to 70.
Among all groups, heavier people were much more likely than thinner people to suffer from sleep apnea. Peppard estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of the increase in symptoms is due to the growth in obesity.
But it’s hard to know for sure how much of a role that obesity plays in causing more symptoms. While obesity is “almost certainly the biggest factor” in causing sleep apnea, Peppard said, “there’s a long list of things that cause sleep apnea or are related to sleep apnea, like being older, being male, having a narrower upper airway, having a genetic predisposition to it.”
Although the study tied obesity to a higher risk of sleep apnea, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, and it only looked at 1,520 people, almost all white, in Wisconsin.
Source: American Journal of Epidemiology