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Women and Sleep Apnea – Why So Many Women Go Undiagnosed

Typically, when we think of someone with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), we think of an overweight male who is at least 40 years old and snores excessively throughout the night. While this image does fit the profile of someone who may have OSA, it does not represent the entire population that can develop this disorder.

Sleep apnea can affect anyone, no matter their age, race, or gender, and the typical symptoms may not always be apparent. Take the previous example – not everyone who has sleep apnea snores, is overweight, and male. While the risk is higher for men, studies show that this potentially fatal condition can be found in 13-50% of women. However, an estimated 90% of women with this sleep disorder are living with it undiagnosed. Why is this?

Why do women with sleep apnea go under-diagnosed so often?

There are several factors that contribute to the under-diagnosis of women with sleep apnea. One of the reasons is that women are less likely to having been witnessed snoring loudly, and if they are, they likely will not report it due to it being “unladylike”. Furthermore, women who report feeling fatigued, or have lack of energy, usually attribute it to insomnia rather than OSA. They are more likely to speak to their general practitioner about their sleep issues, who will then prescribe medications (such as antidepressants) rather than completing a full sleep study.

When are women at a higher risk to develop sleep apnea?

The list of risk factors for women are similar than those to men. However, there are some specific instances which are unique to women.

  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Women who have this complex hormonal disorder are two times as likely to develop OSA vs. those without the condition.
  •  Pregnancy: Women who are pregnant may be at elevated risk for developing OSA, likely because of changes to sleep patterns, weight gain, and changes to the anatomy that affect breathing.
  • Menopause: OSA in women who are menopausal is much more prevalent than in women who are in a pre- or perimenopausal state. Women in this age group have fluctuations of hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which tend to have protective effects over women’s sleep and their breathing during sleep.

Symptoms of sleep apnea in women:

Some of the typical symptoms of sleep apnea, such as snoring and gasping for air during sleep, can be seen in both women and men. However, because women are less likely to become diagnosed, they must pay more attention to the less common signs. Some of these include:

  • Restless sleep, changes in dreaming
  • Nighttime heartburn
  • Frequent bathroom visits at night
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, irritable, or impatient
  • Poor concentration and forgetfulness

    Why is it so important for women to get treated?

    It is important to treat sleep apnea because it can have long-term negative impacts to your health if it is not properly managed. Women with OSA are more likely than men to experience the following:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Insomnia
    • Morning headaches
    • Fatigue
    • Irritability
    • Thyroid conditions, including hypothyroidism
    • Fibromyalgia
    • Dementia

      How can a woman get the proper diagnosis?

      What a woman might think of as insomnia or depression could be something much more severe, such as OSA. If a woman is experiencing some or all these symptoms above, Hiro Health highly encourages an In-Home Sleep Apnea Test. It is a fast, easy, and affordable way to find out, and all from the comfort of one’s own home.

      If you think you may be suffering from sleep apnea, take this short Sleep Apnea Quiz to see if you are at risk.

      The information above is for educational use only. If you need specific medical advice about your sleep therapy options, please reach out to your physician, or call us to speak to a Hiro Health Wellness Team member at 866-764-2165.

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