Sleep apnea has long been though of as a fat, old man’s disease.  That stereotype may be contributing to significant health consequences for people with normal Body Mass Index (BMI), especially women.  While age and weight are increased risk factors for OSA, recent evidence is demonstrating that sleep apnea is an epidemic cutting across a much broader population.  In line with traditional thinking, a recent study of 400 women found severe sleep apnea was present in 31% of obese women aged 55-70 years old.  But the surprising figure from this study was that 50% of all the women tested (age range 20-70) were positive for OSA.

These results mirror a growing trend we have noticed in Sleep Centers nationwide.  Sleep Centers and dentists have discovered that females with normal BMI, and even petite women are suffering from sleep disorders.  They come into  clinics  due to excessive daytime sleepiness or, because of Headaches, their chief complaint is chronic migraines.  A polysomnogram (sleep study) reveals to these patients something they had never considered… they have sleep apnea.

These patients usually recognize that their sleep patterns are not normal and many of them have been prescribed a sleep aid by their family physician.  Sleep aids are one of the fastest growing segments in the pharmaceutical industry, growing 23% from 2006 through 2010.  However, if a sleep breathing disorder like OSA is the root cause of their sleep problems, most sleep medications do not help but actually make things worse. One study of over 10,000 sleeping pill users found a 5.3 times higher rate of death, causing the authors to claim that sleeping pills could be “as risky as cigarettes.

Fortunately, there is a better alternative to dangerous sleep pills.  A study recently published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine was the first placebo-controlled study to use sham CPAP therapy in sleepy patients with mild to moderate OSA.  It showed that PAP treatment effectively reduced symptoms of sleep apnea and improved quality of life in these patients.