Sleep apnoea is still viewed as a predominantly male problem. However, recent studies suggest that as women get older and enter menopause, women are just as likely to experience the disorder as men.
How Symptoms May Differ
Sleep apnoea, of which obstructive sleep apnoea is the most common type, involves the frequent collapse of the soft tissues in the airways when sleeping. The blocked airways result in a drop in blood oxygen levels, prompting the brain to wake you for air.
Classic symptoms of sleep apnoea are loud, regular snoring, frequent interruptions to sleep where you sometimes awake gasping for air, morning headaches and daytime fatigue.
Yet it is important to note that women who have sleep apnoea may report slightly different symptoms to men. Such symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Restless leg
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Dry throat in the morning
Women who are at high risk of sleep apnoea are still likely to experience chronic snoring and daytime drowsiness. Yet not everyone who has the disorder will snore — and sometimes when discussing potential symptoms with a doctor, the patient may not be aware of their own snoring.
Therefore, being aware of further signs of sleep apnoea is important in obtaining a diagnosis of the condition.
Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis
While figures suggest 1 in 4 women may be at risk of sleep apnoea, the really eye-opening statistic is 90% of women with the disorder remain undiagnosed. They are therefore at an increased risk of health issues such as heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes and depression.
Common sleep apnoea misdiagnoses include:
- Fatigue due to overwork
- Cardiac or pulmonary illnesses
This list includes conditions which can occur along with sleep apnoea, but the disorder may also be helping to cause some of them as well.
When misdiagnosed, other conditions can be unnecessarily treated or over-treated, while the issue of sleep apnoea is untouched and left to continue to disrupt the quality of a sufferer’s life.
Specific Risk Factors for Women
There are certain risk factors of sleep apnoea which are the same for both men and women. These include obesity, smoking, age, excess alcohol consumption and having another family member with the sleep disorder. However, there are factors which exclusively place women at more risk to sleep apnoea, one of which is entering the menopause.
The prevalence of sleep apnoea increases with the menopause as the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone decline. These hormones help with the muscle tone in the airways, preventing them from the collapse which leads to the apneas as you sleep associated with the disorder.
Pregnancy can also put women at a higher risk of sleep apnoea. This could be down to an increase in weight and neck size, sleep pattern changes or anatomical changes which may affect breathing. Sleep apnoea can also lead to pregnancy complications, with high blood pressure more likely with this disorder. Also women with the common disorder polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can be at an increased risk of sleep apnoea. While both of these conditions are linked to obesity, women with PCOS are still twice as likely to suffer from sleep apnoea irrespective of their weight.
Although the serious health consequences and increased risk of accidents due to fatigue affect both men and women, research suggests there may be some divergence between the genders.
A recent UK study backs up previous findings that sleep apnoea may place women at more risk from certain cardiovascular conditions, impairing a woman’s heart to a greater extent compared to a man’s.
Women also seem to report a more severe impact on the quality of their lives with sleep apnoea than men. One study gives a possible hint why, indicating that women with obstructive sleep apnoea suffer more injury to brain white matter.
Testing for Sleep apnoea
Diagnosis is critical in receiving the appropriate treatment for sleep apnoea and reducing the symptoms which can put such a strain on personal and professional lives.
In-home sleep apnoea test kits allow anyone who suspects they have symptoms of the disorder to carry out a simple test from the comfort of their own home. You will have the necessary kit delivered to your home address, which will monitor your sleep overnight.
The kit will contain a clip to be worn on your finger as you sleep, which is connected to a small monitor that records blood oxygen levels and heart rate. Once the test is complete you just send it back and the results are analysed by trained sleep professionals.
Diagnosis should be relatively quick, providing you with the degree of sleep apnoea you have, which allows you to discuss appropriate treatment options with your doctor.
If you are suffering with mild to moderate sleep apnoea your doctor may first recommend applying some lifestyle changes. As obesity is strongly linked to the disorder, if you are overweight you may be advised to lose weight, exercise and eat a balanced nutritional diet in order to reduce if not eliminate your symptoms.
Oral devices such as a mandibular advancement device may also be recommended, which when worn at night gently pushes the lower jaw down to keep the airways open.
One of the leading treatments for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. It is a treatment method which can take some getting used to, but generates positive results for most when persisted with.
CPAP therapy involves a small device which supplies a constant supply of pressurised air through a mask worn while sleeping. This therapy needs to be applied every night to combat sleep apnoea symptoms, which can be off-putting to some at first. However it can soon become a part of the everyday routine and with the device portable it is easy to transport and use when staying away from home.
The benefits of CPAP should outweigh any inconveniences, with research showing significant improvement to quality of life from the therapy for both genders.
Women in particular reported improved daytime functioning, better activity levels and less drowsiness or mood swings during the day. A study published in the journal Sleep saw a reversal after one year of CPAP therapy of the brain white matter reduction which had resulted in cognition and mood issues.
Research has also emphasised the importance of diagnosis and appropriate treatment by showing that being placed on a CPAP device prior to surgery reduced the risk of cardiovascular conditions after an operation.
A Rising Problem
It is currently reckoned 26% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70 years old have sleep apnoea, with many remaining undiagnosed. Lifestyle and the rise in obesity levels may well be contributing to this rising problem with the serious health issues that could result.
Although awareness of the disorder in women is growing, misunderstanding of the variations in symptoms and the more subtle breathing difficulties experienced by women with sleep apnoea are reasons for the gender’s high rate of undiagnosed sufferers.
To order the Intus At-Home Sleep Test: https://www.sleeptest.co.uk/product/in-home-sleep-test/
To shop for the highest-quality selection of CPAP devices: https://www.cpap.co.uk/shop.html