September 27, 2021 3 min read

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts. It can reduce a person’s quality of life by interfering with normal sleep and lead to chronic health problems down the line. 

We know there are certain risk factors for sleep apnea, one of which is having a family history of the condition. In fact, you’ll often hear sufferers say that sleep apnea runs in their families. 

But does that mean this condition is hereditary? If yes, is there anything you could actually do about it? Keep reading to find out.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are several types of sleep apnea, all with different causes. But the most common type is  obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)caused by relaxed throat muscles blocking the upper airways. 

Your throat muscles normally support structures in your upper airways, including your soft palate, tongue, tonsils, and walls of the throat. But when you’re asleep, these muscles relax and cause these structures to partially collapse. In sleep apnea sufferers, however, this collapse leads to complete blocking of the upper airway, which rouses the body from sleep and leads to sufferers gasping for air. The sufferer is usually not aware this is happening because these episodes are very brief. 

There are a couple of anatomic factors that make this scenario more likely. Excess weight around the neck, for example, can cause narrowing of the upper airway. Large tonsils, a narrow upper jaw, and a receding jaw are also factors that can lead to OSA.

Besides that, studies show that first-degree relatives of sleep apnea sufferers are more likely to have the condition after controlling for other risk factors. 

Does That Mean Sleep Apnea Is Hereditary?

A person’s anatomy and family history can certainly play into their chances of developing sleep apnea. That may leave you wondering if the condition is simply in your genes. 

And in a way, yes, sleep apnea is heritable. Researchers found that around 40% of sleep apnea cases can be explained by genetic factors. Genetic factors also play a role in OSA disease severity. 

But just because your dad has the condition doesn’t mean you are destined to develop it too. 

Like many diseases, OSA usually results from a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. This means that genes need to interact with something else to set the stage for OSA. And in many cases, this something else is excess weight. Up to 70% of people with sleep apnea are obese. Obesity is a leading risk factor for sleep apnea and one that can be controlled with lifestyle changes. 

But in other cases, certain anatomical features that people inherit from their parents cause sleep apnea. Children born with large tonsils, for example, often develop sleep apnea. Some people with a genetically inherited deviated nasal septum may also develop the condition. The size and position of the neck, jaw, and tongue can all play part in whether someone ends up being diagnosed with OSA.

In Conclusion

Yes, sleep apnea is hereditary. But that does not mean it is inevitable in those with a genetic predisposition. 

Some inherited anatomical features can lead to obstruction of the upper airway in some folks. In other cases, smoking, excess alcohol intake, and obesity can interact with genes and lead to OSA.

In all these cases, doctors will recommend modifying lifestyle factors when they’re the main cause of sleep apnea. Treatment with surgery or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) can also help people get a good night’s sleep. But in cases of mild or simple snoring, snore solutions in the form of tongue-stabilizing devices and other snoring mouthpieces can help. See outGood Morning Snore Solution collection 




  1. Slowik JM, Collen JF. Obstructive Sleep Apnea. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from:

  1. Victor LD. Obstructive sleep apnea. Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(8):2279-2286.

  1. Redline S, Tosteson T, Tishler PV, Carskadon MA, Millman RP. Studies in the genetics of obstructive sleep apnea. Familial aggregation of symptoms associated with sleep-related breathing disturbances.Am Rev Respir Dis. 1992;145(2 Pt 1):440-444.doi:10.1164/ajrccm/145.2_Pt_1.440

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