The Snoring Stigma: More Women Have Sleep Apnea Than Previously Thought

Most women don’t like to admit they snore. Perhaps it’s a matter of pride or because of the negative stigma attached to the so-called “freight train” noises that can disrupt a partner’s sleep. But no matter the reason, the reluctance to admit to being a snorer can have serious consequences on a woman’s health.

That’s because snoring is one of the most common signs of sleep apnea—a disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts in the middle of the night. Left untreated, sleep apnea has been linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease and stroke.

Since men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women, efforts to encourage the disorder’s diagnosis may be imbalanced to target men. However, it is estimated that 90 percent of women with sleep apnea are undiagnosed. And a recent study suggests that one big reason for this is a lack of recognition among women that they snore.

According to an Israeli study of adults who were evaluated for suspected sleep disorders, “women tend to underreport their own snoring and underestimate its loudness, leading to underdiagnosis of sleep conditions,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that 88 percent of the women evaluated were, in fact, snorers—but only 72 percent admitted that they snored. Contrast this with the men, 93 percent of whom self-reported snoring and were measured as such.

Women also underreport the intensity in which they snore, describing it as milder. But that’s not what the study found: Both sexes were reported as snoring at almost an identical volume.

“We found that although no difference in snoring intensity was found between genders, women tend to underreport the fact that they snore and to underestimate the loudness of their snoring,” said lead investigator Nimrod Maimon. “The fact that women reported snoring less often and described it as milder may be one of the barriers preventing women from reaching sleep clinics for a sleep study.”

It’s likely, the study’s authors said, that social stigmas and sex-based stereotypes play a role in the underreporting of snoring in women. Snoring can be seen as “unladylike.” And when most people think of snorers, they picture a middle-aged, overweight man.

The reality is that women face real risks for the disorder. (Add that to the fact that working women are sleeping fewer hours a night than in previous years—about eight and a half hours in 2018 from a previous 2017 high of eight hours and 40 minutes, according to the Labor Department’s annual American Time Use Survey—and the health risks are real.)

It’s important to note that snoring does not always mean a person has sleep apnea—and, in fact, some people diagnosed with sleep apnea do not snore. Other symptoms include gasping or choking during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, halts in breathing, and headache, dry mouth or sore throat upon waking. A woman’s chances for having sleep apnea also rise dramatically while pregnant and after they enter menopause.

The good news is that sleep apnea is treatable. The first step, though, is for women to open up about their snoring and seek out medical help.