Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that is associated with an increased prevalence of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic health disorders. About 80 to 90% of individuals with sleep apnea are undiagnosed and a large number of them are African-Americans. The study was published in the journal Sleep.

A new study by investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital determined the prevalence of sleep apnea among 852 African-American men and women living in Jackson, Miss., and participating in the Jackson Heart Sleep Study.

Prevalence Of Snoring

Researchers explored sleep apnea predictors and estimated the proportion of undiagnosed cases. They found a high prevalence of sleep apnea among this large sample of African-American men and women, and the majority 95% were undiagnosed and untreated.

Severe Sleep Apnea

They discovered that only 5% of individuals with moderate or severe sleep apnea had been diagnosed. In other words, over 95% of this sample experience nightly stresses associated with periods when breathing stops and oxygen levels fall.

Untreated sleep apnea can increase risk for hypertension-related diseases such as stroke, a condition disproportionately common in African-Americans. They also learned that asking about habitual snoring and measuring neck size (a risk factor for sleep apnea) can help identify individuals at risk.

Researchers found that among 852 adults in the study, 24% had moderate or severe sleep apnea, but only 5 percent had been diagnosed by a doctor. Men had a 12-15 percent higher prevalence of the disorder compared to women.

Snoring Habit

Habitual snoring, higher body mass index and larger neck size were important markers of sleep apnea. The average age of the study sample was 63 years old 66% of participants were female and 53.8% college-educated. This is the first-known study of its size to conduct objective testing for sleep apnea and administer validated questionnaires in a sample of African-Americans.

There is a large burden of untreated sleep apnea in the population. Our results point to the opportunity to improve sleep apnea screening and diagnosis in the population as a means for reducing health disparities.

Diagnosis And Treatment

These findings in the Jackson Heart Study reveal that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed and a potential threat to the health and safety of African-Americans. Further studies are needed to develop the tools and systems required to facilitate diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea in African-Americans and other communities.