Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which the sufferer stops breathing during sleep for at least 10 seconds. It's generally associated with men, but researchers in Sweden recently set out to determine the frequency of the malady in women. The surprising result? Half of the women in the study experienced obstructive sleep apnea, with 20 percent having moderate and 6 percent having severe symptoms.

As reported in the European Respiratory Journal, Dr. Karl Franklin and his colleagues selected 400 women between the ages of 20 and 70 from a larger population sample of 10,000. The participants were monitored during sleep for heart rate, eye and leg movements, blood oxygen levels, airflow and brain waves. Half experienced at least five episodes an hour when they stopped breathing for longer than 10 seconds. And for women with hypertension or who were obese, the numbers reached 80 to 84 percent.

The disorder was found to be more prevalent in older women: Among women aged 20-44, one quarter had sleep apnea, compared to 56 percent of women aged 45-54 and 75 percent of women aged 55-70.

Occasional cessation in breathing during sleep may happen to everyone from time to time, but in obstructive sleep apnea there are at least five times when breathing stops, for at least 10 seconds each time, within an hour. Patients with severe symptoms may stop breathing hundreds of times in one sleeping session.

Sleep apnea is tied to a higher risk of depression, stroke, heart attack, cancer and early death. One recent study also found that women who have sleep apnea are more likely to develop memory problems and dementia.

Many patients are not aware of their sleep disorder, knowing these symptoms can help:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Loud snoring, which is usually more prominent in obstructive sleep apnea
  • Episodes of breathing cessation during sleep witnessed by another person
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath, which more likely indicates central sleep apnea
  • Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Attention problems