A man in bed with a CPAP mask on his face for sleep apnea.

Does Sleep Apnea Get Worse With Age?

It’s normal to wonder how sleep apnea will progress as you get older.

The answer is that the chance that you develop sleep apnea can increase with age, but there is mixed evidence about how severe your symptoms may be.

As people age, various physiological changes occur in the body, including alterations in muscle tone, weight gain, and decreased lung function. These changes can have a significant impact on the development and progression of sleep apnea.

With age, the muscles responsible for keeping airways open during sleep tend to become weaker, leading to a higher likelihood of airway collapse or obstruction.

Key Takeaways
  • Prevalence of sleep apnea increases with age – particularly for men – but severity may decrease after middle age based on research.
  • Age-related anatomical and physiological changes like reduced muscle tone, facial structure changes, and impaired breathing regulation promote sleep apnea in older adults.
  • Lifestyle modifications like weight loss, exercise, proper sleep posture, and avoiding alcohol can help manage sleep apnea as you get older.
  • It’s important to follow doctor recommendations for sleep studies and CPAP therapy in order to monitor progression and minimize symptoms of sleep apnea at an older age.

Sleep Apnea Prevalence Increases, But Severity May Decrease

An older couple having coffee in a cafe.

Research shows that sleep apnea becomes more prevalent in men as they get older. One large study of over 2,800 men found that the rate of sleep apnea in men was 3.3% overall based on clinical and sleep lab criteria (Young et al., 1993). The maximum prevalence was seen in middle-aged men between 45-64 years old. The rate of both obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea increased with age.

However, some research indicates that while sleep apnea becomes more common in older adults, its severity may actually decrease after middle age. One study found that after controlling for body mass index, indicators of sleep apnea severity like the number of apneic events and oxygen desaturation decreased with age in men over 45.

More research is needed to determine the factors that affect sleep apnea and people with the condition in their later years.

So even though the condition becomes more prevalent, it may become milder in later years.

Why Does Sleep Apnea Increase With Age?

A 3d image of a person's throat, providing insights on potential sleep apnea.

What causes the increased prevalence of sleep apnea in older people?

As we age, several anatomical and physiological changes take place that promote airway collapse during sleep. 

Changes in Airway and Facial Structure

– Throat muscles become more relaxed leading to increased airway collapsibility
– The tongue becomes enlarged, narrowing space in the airway 
– Changes in facial structure occur like decreased jaw volume and receding chin, impacting airway size
– Tissues in the throat can lose tone and become saggy

Alterations in Breathing Regulation 

– Respiratory drive is reduced, leading to impaired breathing regulation
– The brain’s auto-regulation of breathing during sleep becomes disrupted
– Chemical and hormone signalling involved in controlling respiration declines 

Sleep Changes

– Time spent in deeper, non-REM sleep stages decreases
– More time is spent in lighter sleep stages  
– Frequent awakenings occur leading to sleep fragmentation

These anatomical and physiological changes promote airway collapse, obstruction, and oxygen desaturations characteristic of OSA in older people.

Managing Sleep Apnea As You Age

A doctor is diagnosing sleep apnea in a patient of advanced age.

If you have been diagnosed with OSA, there are steps you can take to effectively manage it as you get older: 

– Use CPAP therapy regularly if prescribed. CPAP uses air pressure to keep airways open and remains the first-line treatment. Adhere to your prescribed settings.
– Maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight contributes to apnea. Even modest weight loss can improve symptoms.
– Exercise regularly to build muscle tone in the neck and throat areas. 
– Avoid alcohol and sedatives which depress respiratory function.
– Adopt proper sleep posture by sleeping on your side instead of your back.
– Follow your doctor’s recommendations for follow-up sleep studies to monitor progression.

Don’t Ignore Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea tends to worsen with age due to various factors, including muscle weakness, weight gain, and decreased lung function. The increasing severity of sleep apnea can have detrimental effects on an individual’s sleep quality and overall health, with potential risks of cardiovascular complications and cognitive impairment.

The worsening of sleep apnea with age not only affects the quality of sleep but can also have significant health implications. Studies have shown that untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, including hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. Additionally, sleep apnea can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, and a higher likelihood of accidents due to impaired concentration and alertness.

Early detection, proper diagnosis, and appropriate treatment are paramount in managing sleep apnea in older individuals, ensuring a better quality of life and improved health outcomes.


Young, T., Palta, M., Dempsey, J., Skatrud, J., Weber, S., & Badr, S. (1993). The occurrence of sleep-disordered breathing among middle-aged adults. New England Journal of Medicine, 328(17), 1230-1235.

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As a long term Sleep Apnea sufferer, Sean has researched the topic extensively and tried several different therapies and lifestyle changes with varying degrees of success. His efforts now are focused on helping people get diagnosed early and begin treating their Sleep Apnea to avoid long-term health impacts.

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