Often discussed are sleep apnea in children, sleep apnea in those who are middle-aged, and also apnea in the elderly. There is a large gap there. Adolescence, sometimes referred to as the teenage years, includes a wide range of changes in the human body. I won’t discuss what happens during puberty (I’m sure you remember), but the body basically starts to become more adult-like. Some define adolescence as lasting into the early 20s, which brings on even more bodily changes. These changes, of course, include brain changes as well. Oftentimes, though, this age group is ignored by researchers. Luckily, sleep apnea researchers have recently set out to see just how many “normal” adolescents suffer from the disorder.
In this study, over 1,000 13-16 year olds were recruited and questioned thoroughly (as were their parents) to look for any sign of breathing troubles during sleep. The research team asked about any snoring symptoms or any occurrences of stoppage of breathing during sleep. Questionnaires involving daytime sleepiness and school performance were also administered, and body characteristics (e.g., BMI) were measured.
Many calculations were made, and results showed that 6.1% of this group had been reported to choke or gasp while sleeping (a huge indicator of sleep apnea). In addition, 20% of the adolescents were reported as snoring at least a few times per month. By the way, snoring has been independently linked with health problems (even when apneas are not present). Not surprisingly, the greatest risk factor for sleep-disordered breathing was BMI, which is also seen in middle-aged populations. Also not surprising was that those with sleep-disordered breathing also had higher levels of overall self-reported sleepiness and reported a higher incidence of falling asleep in class. As a consequence, these children also had lower overall grade point averages1.
Well, this seems like a problem. Not only did the adolescents with choking and gasping during the night have higher levels of sleepiness (which some would call a poorer quality of life), but their grades also seemed to be suffering as a consequence. Because of the higher BMI, apneas occur during the night, making the classroom a much more difficult battlefield to endure. This leads us back to the number one treatment for sleep apnea – weight loss. Of course, the measures of apnea (choking and gasping) were only self-reports in this study. If anything, though, this method would probably underestimate the amount of adolescents that suffer from sleep-disordered breathing. Do you have a teenager? It might be time for a sleep study!
Source: Johnson EO, Roth T. An epidemiologic study of sleep-disordered breathing symptoms among adolescents. Sleep. 2006 Sep;29(9):1135-42.