Does Sleep Apnea Occur More in the Elderly?

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Question: Does Sleep Apnea Occur More in the Elderly?


Sleep apnea is a chronic medical condition where the affected person repeatedly stops breathing during sleep. These episodes last 10 seconds or more and cause oxygen levels in the blood to drop. It can be caused by obstruction of the upper airway, resulting in obstructive sleep apnea, or by a failure of the brain to initiate a breath, called central sleep apnea.

Both types of sleep apnea may occur commonly in the elderly. In the general adult population about 9% of women and 24% of men have sleep apnea. It occurs in 50-85% of the overweight and obese. The prevalence plateaus around age 60 and does not increase further. Though sleep apnea is commonly associated with excessive weight, aging seems to be an important risk factor. As we age we lose muscle tone, including within the muscles of our upper airway (especially the throat). This more relaxed airway may lead to easier obstruction while we are asleep.

In addition, there are conditions that commonly occur in the elderly that may lead to central sleep apnea. These include Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple system atrophy, and congestive heart failure.

Finally, the elderly should be especially mindful of seeking evaluation and treatment for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can be deadly. It may cause or exacerbate conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

It also increases the risk of stroke and of sudden death.


Collop, N. "The effect of obstructive sleep apnea on chronic medical disorders." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2007 74:1.

Mowzoon, N et al. "Neurology of Sleep Disorders." Neurology Board Review: An Illustrated Guide. 2007; 726.

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