Sleep Apnea in Women, and Why It’s Underdiagnosed

Picture the typical person with sleep apnea.

Odds are, you just thought of a man. But studies show that almost one in two sleep apnea patients is a woman. How likely are women to have this disorder…and how often are they treated?   

The Gender Gap

It is true that women are less prone to sleep apnea than men, but this doesn’t mean that they’re not at risk. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, at least 2% of women suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), compared to 4% of men.

However, the rate of female diagnoses for the disorder is disproportionately low: about 1 woman per 2-3 men. Why are women so underrepresented?

One side of the discrepancy is mental: sleep apnea is often portrayed as a man’s disorder. Historically, sleep apnea was considered an issue that afflicted mainly men and occurred only rarely in women. In fact, studies from the 1970s and 1980s suggested a ratio of prevalence of 1 to 60.Research focused on male subjects and therefore produced a list of symptoms tailored to men. 

Another side of the issue is that properly diagnosing women is just more challenging. Women tend to present more ambiguous symptoms, which can lead to misdiagnosis along the lines of anemia, depression, diabetes, hypertension, hypothyroidism, or hormonal changes during menopause.  Furthermore, experts suspect that women are less likely to report relevant symptoms, such as snoring.   

What are the risk factors and symptoms of sleep apnea in females?

One of the biggest risk factors is common to both sexes: obesity. Post-menopausal women are more than three times as likely to have sleep apnea. Pregnant women may also find themselves at higher risk (for more information, see our blog posts on sleep and pregnancy).

Symptoms most often found in females include headaches or swollen feet upon awakening, snoring (though often more subtly than in men), fatigue and daytime sleepiness, insomnia, and frequent awakening during the night. 

Studies have also shown that women are more susceptible to negative health effects resulting from sleep apnea. A study at UCLA found that the heart rate of women with sleep apnea was less likely to adjust during physical activity than that of men with OSA, which could indicate that females are more vulnerable to heart conditions. Other studies found women to be at higher rest of inflammation, hypertension, and dementia.

I’m a woman; how can I diagnose and/or treat my sleep apnea?

If you think you are showing telltale symptoms, make sure to talk to your doctor about the possibility of having sleep apnea. He may prescribe a sleep study, which should determine if you indeed have the condition. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy should completely alleviate the symptoms. (For a more detailed breakdown of sleep apnea treatment, see our 10 Steps to Treating your Sleep Apnea Infographic.)

There is some good news for female patients: new auto-adjusting CPAP technology is coming out that is more tailored to women’s apnea patterns. Read about the innovation here.

Are you a woman with concerned that you may have sleep apnea? Contact us today to schedule a consultation or sleep study.


National Sleep Foundation
British Snoring & Sleep Apnea Foundation, ABC News, UCLA Newsroom
Pyschology Today
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Dementia Today

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  1. High Rated Gabru Reply

    Hi Marissa!! Thanks for share such a informative article.

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