Sleep apnea is often mischaracterized as a “men’s disorder.” The truth is that it affects women too—though not always in the same way. Dealing with sleep apnea can be different for women, due in part to their risk factors, the symptoms they experience and their difficulty obtaining a diagnosis.
Here’s an overview of some of the key differences between sleep apnea in women and men.
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea
When people think of the standard sleep apnea patient, they’ll typically picture an obese man who’s 40 years or older with a thick neck. Obesity, thick neck circumference and being male are indeed all common risk factors for sleep apnea. However, women have some of their own unique risk factors as well. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, pregnancy and menopause have each been shown to increase the risk of sleep apnea in women.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
For men, the symptoms of sleep apnea tend to be those most commonly associated with the disorder: snoring, breathing pauses, loud gasping breaths and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Symptoms of sleep apnea in women, on the other hand, are often non-specific. For example, women are more likely to report insomnia, fatigue, headaches and mood disturbances. They also may experience lighter snoring and subtler breathing interruptions. These reasons, among others, make it more difficult for women to receive a diagnosis.
Receiving a Sleep Apnea Diagnosis
A diagnosis is the first step toward managing sleep apnea and enjoying better health. Unfortunately, women are eight times less likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea than men. Because of the way their symptoms present, women dealing with sleep apnea are often misdiagnosed with depression, anemia, menopausal changes or fibromyalgia. But this can’t all be blamed on the symptoms of sleep apnea in women. Another contributing factor is the misconception, even among those in the medical community, that sleep apnea is a “men’s disorder.”
It’s important for both men and women to be assertive self-advocates when it comes to receiving a sleep apnea diagnosis. Once diagnosed, they can then work on managing sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or another recommended treatment method.