Sleep Apnea Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Sleep apnea (also known as obstructive sleep apnea or OSA) is a sleep disorder occurring in about 25% of men and nearly 10% of women. Sleep apnea describes when a person stops and starts breathing again throughout the night because their upper airway becomes blocked during sleep. Having a narrow airway can increase the risk of sleep apnea. This ongoing breathing disruption means you get less oxygen while you sleep as well as worse sleep overall. 

This article will describe sleep apnea in more detail, including how common sleep apnea is, why some people are at a higher risk of sleep apnea than others, and the prognosis for sleep apnea.

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Overview


Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that requires medical attention. When someone stops or pauses breathing for longer than 10 seconds multiple times an hour throughout the night, they are not taking in adequate amounts of oxygen.

Sleep apnea has secondary symptoms resulting from chronic poor sleep including:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Changes in mood (for example, depression or irritability)
  • Concentration and memory issues
  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches

How Common Is Sleep Apnea?


The exact number of people with sleep apnea in the United States is difficult to determine. A 2021 study shows lifetime prevalence across literature varies between 9–38% but also that anywhere from 80–90% of sleep apnea cases may be undiagnosed (meaning cases in which the person doesn't even know they have sleep apnea).

Prevalence by Men and Women


Lifetime prevalence or likelihood of developing sleep apnea ranges from 13–25% in men and 6–10% in women.

Sleep Apnea by Ethnicity 

Obstructive sleep apnea is common across ethnic backgrounds, but research shows rates tend to be higher among:

  • African Americans
  • Native Americans
  • Hispanics (Cuban men, in particular)

Reasons for differences in sleep apnea by ethnicity are cited as differences in facial bone structures, genetics, obesity rates, and symptom tolerance and reporting.

Sleep Apnea by Age and Gender


Sleep apnea doesn’t have an age minimum or limit. It can occur in babies, children, teens, adults, and the elderly. But it is most commonly associated with people over the age of 50.

It is more commonly diagnosed in men than in women across all groups. The exact reasons for this are unknown, but researchers say some explanations for the gender difference include differences in obesity, upper airway anatomy, breathing control, hormones, and aging.

Causes of Sleep Apnea and Risk Factors


The following factors are not necessarily direct causes of sleep apnea but can be thought of as catalysts, precursors, or triggers for sleep apnea. For example, not everyone who ages will develop sleep apnea, but those who have other risk factors from this list may be more likely (especially if they're male).

Risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Obesity (especially having a large neck size)
  • Having a narrow upper airway
  • Using certain medications, including prescription pain medications
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Aging
  • Sleeping on your back
  • REM or deep sleeping
  • Smoking 

What Are the Mortality Rates for Sleep Apnea?

People can die from complications associated with sleep apnea. The more severe the sleep apnea, the greater the risk of heart attack or premature death. Not everyone with sleep apnea is obese, but they are both associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. These factors increase the risk of premature death when left untreated.

One literature review says sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, the risk of stroke by 60%, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%. Around 38,000 people die from heart disease and sleep apnea each year.



Screening and Early Detection

You may not know you have sleep apnea, especially if you do not share your bedroom with anyone who can report your symptoms. But if you are experiencing daytime tiredness with no known causes or are waking up often during the night, consider speaking with a healthcare provider about professional screenings for sleep disorders. You may also consider at-home sleep apnea testing or in-person sleep study testing if sleep apnea or other sleep disorders occur in your family. 

Tests and screening may be part of what's called polysomnography (sleep studies). It may involve home sleep testing or in-lab testing.

Early diagnosis supports a person in regaining healthy function, daytime performance, avoiding injury, and minimizing the risk of cardiovascular events.

Summary

Sleep apnea is a chronic sleeping disorder affecting millions of Americans. It's associated with health conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke. Sleep apnea is more commonly reported in men, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic persons as well as people over 50. It is also influenced by other factors including drug and alcohol use and back sleeping. It is a serious sleeping disorder associated with premature death. Screening and early detection can help reduce the impact of sleep apnea on your life.

A Word From Verywell

The complications of sleep apnea can be dangerous. If you experience frequently disrupted sleep, speak with your healthcare provider. You're not alone in dealing with this problem.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.