Obesity and craniofacial structure as risk factors for obstructive sleep apnoea: impact of ethnicity

Respirology. 2012 Feb;17(2):213-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1843.2011.02082.x.


OSA is the result of structural and functional abnormalities that promote the repetitive collapse of the upper airway during sleep. This common disorder is estimated to occur in approximately 4% of men and 2% of women, with prevalence studies from North America, Australia, Europe and Asia indicating that occurrence is relatively similar across the globe. Anatomical factors, such as obesity and craniofacial morphology, are key determinants of the predisposition to airway collapse; however, their relative importance for OSA risk likely varies between ethnicities. Direct inter-ethnic studies comparing craniofacial phenotypes in OSA are limited. However, available data suggest that Asian OSA populations primarily display features of craniofacial skeletal restriction, African Americans display more obesity and enlarged upper airway soft tissues, while Caucasians show evidence of both bony and soft tissue abnormalities. Our recent comparison of Chinese and Caucasian OSA patients found for the same degree of OSA severity. Caucasians were more obese, and Chinese had more skeletal restriction. However, the ratio of obesity to craniofacial bony size (or anatomical balance, an important determinant of upper airway volume and OSA risk) was similar between Caucasians and Chinese OSA patients. Ethnicity appears to influence OSA craniofacial phenotype but furthermore the relative contribution of the anatomical factors underlying OSA risk. The skeletal restriction craniofacial phenotype may be particularly vulnerable to increasing obesity rates. Better understanding of craniofacial phenotypes encompassing ethnicity may help improve OSA recognition and treatment; however, further studies are needed to elucidate ethnic differences in OSA anatomical risk factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index
  • Craniofacial Abnormalities / complications*
  • Craniofacial Abnormalities / ethnology
  • Ethnicity*
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / ethnology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology