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UF College of Medicine study finds sleep apnea in older adults needs more attention

Obstructive sleep apnea, which can reduce life expectancy and cause significant health problems, often is undiagnosed and unaddressed in adults ages 50 and over, a study led by a University of Florida College of Medicine researcher suggests.

Lead author Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D., M.H.S., an assistant professor in the college’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics, said the study reveals a need to identify strategies that could address this inequity nationally.

“That we’re finding undiagnosed and thus untreated obstructive sleep apnea in this population is especially concerning,” said Kaufmann, who is also a faculty member in the UF Institute on Aging. “Older adults have greater risk for many different adverse health outcomes.”

The UF College of Medicine is part of UF Health, the university’s academic health center.

The paper, which examines health disparities in this condition, was published March 3 in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

“We are increasingly recognizing that health disparities in sleep apnea are not just related to the structure of the face and skull and obesity,” said Atul Malhotra, M.D., a professor in the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and the study’s senior author. “Environmental factors such as diet, exercise and air pollution may also contribute.”

Kaufmann and his collaborators used data from more than 9,000 adults ages 50 and older from the 2016 Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States. That study reported a variety of characteristics in participants, including presence of obstructive sleep apnea; treatment history, if any; socioeconomic status; symptoms of sleep apnea; and demographics.

The study found potentially undiagnosed older adults with obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to be a member of a minority/ethnic racial group; have less education; lower income; lack health insurance; and to be male. That is compared with older adults who had been diagnosed and treated.

The study found those without insurance had a 90% higher risk of potentially undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea.

Researchers found the overwhelming majority, or 6,908 people, were rated as having possible undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea. And a small yet significant number, about 1,000 more, had been diagnosed with sleep apnea yet were not getting treatment.

One potential risk in an older population, Kaufmann noted, is that people who have obstructive sleep apnea are at higher risk for cognitive decline.

Obstructive sleep apnea causes a person to repeatedly stop and restart breathing during sleep, most often caused when the throat muscles relax, blocking the airway. In the worst cases, that occurs 30 or more times an hour.

A variety of factors can cause or contribute to obstructive sleep apnea Obesity, older age, diabetes, asthma and other characteristics heighten the risk. Untreated sleep apnea can reduce life expectancy as it causes complications such as cardiovascular issues, daytime fatigue and cognitive issues.

“We really need to increase public awareness of obstructive sleep apnea,” Kaufmann said. “We’re looking at a population that is really vulnerable to the ill effects of obstructive sleep apnea and we have to do everything we can to make sure people are diagnosed and treated.”

But the study reveals the problem extends beyond just lack of medical coverage, as older adults age 65 and over are eligible for Medicare. The study noted people often face barriers to preventive health care services, including travel distance to clinics or doctors, especially in rural locations.

As a matter of public policy, more resources need to be devoted to identifying and ultimately diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea in older adults, Kaufmann said.

“Older adults are at risk for a number of negative health outcomes,” Kaufmann said. “We have to protect them from the deleterious effects of obstructive sleep apnea. Education about the condition and the benefits of treating it needs to be a major component of these efforts so that older adults can recognize the symptoms and obtain the care they need.”

Media contact: Matt Walker at or 352-265-8395.

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Bill Levesque
Science Writer

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Media contact

Matt Walker
Media Relations Coordinator (352) 265-8395