Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary? How To Identify if You’re at Risk

David Cuthbertson, MD

A person holding a card that says sleep apnea, and wondering if sleep apnea is genetic/hereditary.

Incidents of sleep apnea are on the rise. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine now estimates that 26% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 70 suffer from some form of sleep apnea.

Chances are good, then, that you or someone you know deals with this frustrating condition. And if the person you know with sleep apnea is a parent or sibling, you may find yourself wondering if you’re at risk too.

So, is sleep apnea genetic/hereditary? Let’s look at what the scientific evidence has to say, as well as how to know if you’re at risk for developing sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea falls along a spectrum of issues known as sleep disordered breathing (SDB). SDB includes everything from very mild snoring to mild, moderate, or severe sleep apnea to obesity hypoventilation syndrome (sometimes referred to as Pickwickian Syndrome, a nod to Charles Dickens’ famous character).

The word “apnea” means slowed or stopped breathing. Although apnea can happen during the day, sleep apnea refers specifically to slowed or stopped breathing while sleeping.

There are two kinds of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Central sleep apnea.

Sometimes people can develop a combination of both kinds of sleep apnea, which is called complex sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the lungs are trying to breathe, but something is blocking the airway. This blockage is usually located somewhere in the throat.

When you’re sleeping, your muscle tone is naturally much lower than when you’re awake. The muscles in your airway relax, and the tongue and tonsils can fall backward and block the airway. Excess fat tissue in the neck can also result in pressure that blocks the airway during sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea results from a dysfunction in the nervous system. While obstructive sleep apnea is more of a mechanical problem, central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to correctly signal the lungs to take a breath.

Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?

So is sleep apnea hereditary? As with so much in medicine, the answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no.

Researchers suspect that there may be specific genetic factors that make a person more likely to develop sleep apnea. But while this possibility is still being explored, it’s clear that some risk factors could be inherited.

But which factors of sleep apnea are hereditary? And if you’re at risk, is there anything you can do to lower your risk?

First, if one of your parents or siblings has sleep apnea, then it’s important you ask which kind they suffer from: central or obstructive sleep apnea. This will give you somewhere to start. Then you can consider the signs and risk factors for the two types of sleep apnea.

Which Risk Factors of Obstructive Sleep Apnea Are Hereditary?

Most incidences of obstructive sleep apnea are due to excess body weight. More fatty tissue in the neck puts more pressure on the throat during sleep, leading to an obstruction of breathing.

As genetics impact your body weight, you may be more prone to developing obstructive sleep apnea. If you inherited a larger body type from your family, for example, you may have more difficulty with weight around your neck.

The best way to mitigate weight-related risk for sleep apnea is through a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Other potentially hereditary risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include anatomical differences in the face and neck, such as:

  • Large tongue (compared to the rest of your mouth).
  • Narrow airway.
  • Short cheekbones.
  • Small lower jaw.
  • The shape of your throat.
  • Shorter, thicker-than-average neck.
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure).

Which Risk Factors of Central Sleep Apnea Are Hereditary?

We don’t have many answers right now about the root cause of central sleep apnea. It’s a largely idiopathic condition, which is the medical way of saying we don’t know what causes it. However, we do know several risk factors, such as:

  • Narcotic pain relievers (such as opioids) that affect breathing.
  • High altitude.
  • End-stage kidney disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Congestive heart failure.

The tendency toward some of these risk factors could be heritable. If you have any of these risk factors in your family history and suspect sleep apnea, speak with your healthcare provider.

Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary? How To Identify if You're at Risk Infographic

Worried You’re at Risk for Sleep Apnea?

If you’re worried that you may be at risk for sleep apnea, contact your healthcare provider. They can order a sleep study for you, which is an easy way to determine whether you have sleep apnea.

Excess weight is the top risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, so speaking to a doctor about help for weight management could help. If weight doesn’t seem to be the problem, certain surgeries can help address anatomical issues that block the airway.

For example, in children who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy often resolve the condition. Some adults even benefit from a tonsillectomy. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a common, non-invasive treatment for sleep apnea. And Inspire is a popular procedure that helps relieve obstructive sleep apnea for many people.

If you have central sleep apnea, though doctors may not know its cause, they can still provide treatment. Certain medications, a CPAP machine, and even a new surgery may all help alleviate central sleep apnea. Reducing the use of opioid medications may also help.

Regardless of your hereditary risk factors, if you suspect you have any form of sleep apnea, the most important thing is to see a doctor right away. Left untreated, sleep apnea can be dangerous and have a significant impact on your health and quality of life.


Disclaimer: The content on this website is written and/or reviewed by a qualified medical doctor and great care is taken to provide accurate general information. However, it is for informational purposes only and is not to be taken as a substitute for medical advice from your own physician who is familiar with the details of your medical history. Always consult your doctor regarding health concerns before deciding any course of medical action.