In adults, obesity and excessive weight are known to be the greatest risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is because when we gain weight, we gain weight everywhere. This means that the tissue around the airway, which normally does not cause blockage, becomes larger, making the airway more susceptible to obstruction. When our bodies relax during sleep, these airways become extra floppy, and obstructions occur. Unfortunately, in children, this same risk is possible. This is especially unfortunate since children’s bodies are more vulnerable to damage from sleep and oxygen deprivation. This is very worrisome considering many societies have an increasing rate of child obesity. It follows that a research team recently set out to see just how prevalent OSA is in an obese child population.
This study compared the prevalence of OSA in obese but otherwise healthy children (3-14) with the prevalence in the general population of children. Obesity was classified as having a BMI in at least the 95th percentile for the national average, and the average BMI was about 28 for the whole group (this would also be considered overweight in an adult). Around 250 subjects were used, and each child underwent an overnight sleep study to assess the presence and severity of OSA.
Results showed that about 30% (22-40%) of the subject population suffered from some form of OSA, which is enormous compared to the general population. Over 8% of the sample had OSA that was considered severe for a child. Importantly, the presence of OSA was similar in boys and in girls. And finally, there was no difference in the prevalence of OSA between age groups1.
This study showed OSA was highly prevalent in obese children, regardless of age and gender. In an aged population, men and older adults are more likely to have OSA than women and younger adults, so this is an interesting dichotomy. This study therefore confirms that obesity is a crucial risk factor for OSA at all ages. As previously mentioned, children are especially vulnerable to the dangerous effects of OSA. Because of this, it is important to have all overweight and obese children screened for apnea before too much damage is done.
1. Pre-publication: Sleep Journal: Obstructive sleep apnea in obese community dwelling children: The NANOS Study