Do you find yourself struggling to feel rested? Do you have mood and memory problems? Those issues might be caused by obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that occurs when you struggle to breathe freely throughout the night and can lead to fragmented sleep. Sleep apnea affects 18 million Americans—and there are certain characteristics that can put you at a higher risk for the disorder. Look out for these five.
- A Higher BMI: While not everyone who is overweight or obese has sleep apnea, carrying around extra weight greatly increases your risk. The reason: Being overweight puts added pressure on your respiratory system, making it harder to breathe at night.
- A Large Neck Circumference: Pay special attention if your neck measures 17 inches or greater (for a man) or 16 inches or greater (for a woman) in circumference. The extra weight of a larger neck pushes on the airway while you sleep.
- Snoring: Around half of everyone who is a loud snorer has sleep apnea. The sound of snoring is caused by not breathing freely. With sleep apnea, snoring can actually get so bad that it sounds like you’re choking or gasping for air.
- Smoking and Alcohol Use: Alcohol can relax the muscles in the throat, which makes it easier for them to get obstructed. And smokers are also at a higher risk for sleep apnea—possibly because the tobacco irritates and inflames the upper airway, causing it to narrow.
- A Small Airway: Since sleep apnea occurs when you have trouble breathing at night, it makes sense that having a smaller airway can increase your risk. There are many reasons that yours might be small. For instance, maybe it’s just the natural shape of your nose and throat, or perhaps you have a large tongue or tonsils, or maybe you have bad allergies.
Some of these factors—like the size of your neck and the size of your airway—are obviously things that you can't change. But you can try making lifestyle changes, such as getting your weight into a healthy range and reducing or eliminating tobacco and alcohol, to lower your risk for the disorder.
If you do suspect that you may have sleep apnea, don't wait to see a doctor. It's a serious disorder that can be life threatening, so you'll want to treat it as soon as possible—both to protect your health and to get more sleep and feel more energized.