November 25, 1996

The Gender Bias in Sleep Apnea DiagnosisAre Women Missed Because They Have Different Symptoms?

Author Affiliations

From the Departments of Preventive Medicine (Drs Young, Hutton, and Palta and Ms Finn) and Medicine (Dr Badr), University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Arch Intern Med. 1996;156(21):2445-2451. doi:10.1001/archinte.1996.00440200055007

Background:  Population-based studies have shown that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed in women, relative to men. One hypothesis for this gender bias is that women with sleep apnea are missed because clinical guidelines for the evaluation and diagnosis of sleep apnea, established primarily on men, are not valid for women. In this investigation, data from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, a community-based study of the natural history of sleep apnea, were used to determine whether women with sleep apnea have unique symptoms or complaints.

Methods:  The sample comprised 551 men and 388 women, none of whom had ever been given a diagnosis of sleep apnea. Data on typical sleep apnea symptoms and other factors were obtained by interview and survey. Sleep apnea status was determined from the frequency of apneic and hypopneic events during sleep as recorded by in-laboratory, whole-night polysomnography. The sensitivity and relative predictive power of each symptom or factor for sleep apnea at different severity levels were calculated and compared by gender.

Results:  Regardless of severity level, women with sleep apnea did not report symptoms that differed significantly from those of men with the same level of sleep apnea. For men and women, snoring was the most sensitive and strongest predictor of sleep apnea.

Conclusions:  Current clinical indications for sleep apnea evaluation are as appropriate for women as they are for men. Other reasons for the gender disparity in sleep apnea diagnosis, including the possibility that health care providers disregard typical symptoms in women, should be pursued.Arch Intern Med. 1996;156:2445-2451