Gender differences in the expression of sleep-disordered breathing : role of upper airway dimensions

Chest. 2001 Nov;120(5):1442-7. doi: 10.1378/chest.120.5.1442.


Study objectives: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common disorder that is characterized by repetitive episodes of upper airway narrowing and collapse. Obesity is a major risk factor for OSA. Compared with men, women have greater total body fat and are more obese, and yet the prevalence of OSA is much higher in men. The airway size and compliance and pharyngeal muscle tone are important determinants of upper airway patency during sleep. The discrepancy between greater frequency of obesity and lower prevalence of OSA in women has not been explained and suggests a different pathogenetic mechanism underlying this condition. Most clinical studies in OSA have either combined the sexes or have described results from men only. The object of this study was twofold: (1) to examine the effect of obesity on pharyngeal size in both men and women, and (2) to determine the role of upper airway dimensions in the expression of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) and its relationship to gender.

Design: Prospective study of subjects referred for evaluation of SDB.

Setting: University-based sleep center.

Subjects: Seventy-eight male patients (mean +/- SE age, 49.2 +/- 1.5 years) and 52 female patients (mean age, 47.4 +/- 1.5 years).

Measurements and results: All subjects underwent in-laboratory polysomnography with measurement of upper airway size using the acoustic reflectance method. Although the two groups were similar in age, the female patients were slightly heavier than the male patients (body mass index [BMI], 36.0 +/- 1.7 kg/m(2) vs 33.3 +/- 0.8 kg/m(2), respectively; p < 0.0001). Despite similar clinical presentation of snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness, women had mild OSA (respiratory disturbance index [RDI], 9.2 +/- 2.7 events per hour) or increased upper airway resistance syndrome compared with men with more severe OSA (RDI, 28.0 +/- 3.5 events per hour; p < 0.0001). In contrast, women had a significantly smaller oropharyngeal junction and pharynx than men (p < 0.02). Upper airway size correlated significantly with the severity of sleep apnea in men only. There was no correlation between BMI and pharyngeal size in either gender.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that the static properties of upper airway in awake men but not women correlate with the severity of sleep apnea. This suggests inherent structural and functional differences in upper airway during sleep between men and women with more favorable airway mechanics in women.

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / pathology
  • Oropharynx / pathology
  • Pharynx / pathology*
  • Polysomnography
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / pathology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology