Large increase in UK rates of sleep apnoea and obesity

Sleep apnoea rates have almost doubled at the same time as obesity rates have more than tripled over the last 20 years in the UK, a survey has found.

UCLH and UCL researchers who carried out the survey of sleep disordered breathing (SDB) – running from simple snoring to severe obstructive sleep apnoea (breathing pauses during sleep) – said data suggested that SDB is under-diagnosed in the UK.

In the survey, to be published next month in the journal Sleep Medicine and a follow up to a 1997 study, 7% of respondents reported that they stopped breathing at night at least 3 times per week – up from 3.8% in the 1997 study.

Based on height and weight data, 28% were obese (having a BMI of 30 or above) compared with just 8% reported in 1997. These figures line up with obesity data collected by Public Health England.

Lead researcher Professor Bhik Kotecha, at UCLH’s Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, said: “The link between SDB and obesity is intriguing. There is evidence that obesity is both a cause and a consequence of SDB.

“Obesity changes the anatomy of the upper airway and increases the amount of energy needed to breathe, which can contribute towards SDB.

“At the same time, there is evidence that SDB can lead to obesity. One reason is that having disordered sleep can increase hunger during the day.”

Researchers urged policy-makers to address under-diagnosis of SBD, which is linked to a heart attack, cardiovascular disease, cognitive dysfunction and depression.

Other survey results showed 38% of men and 30.4% of women snore at least 3 times a week, though overall levels of snoring are down on those reported in 1997.

Snoring was most associated with being male, increasing age, smoking, high blood pressure and having a high BMI.

Researchers also found a strong link between owning a smartphone and daytime drowsiness, explaining that the blue light emitted through technological devices has been shown to promote wakefulness.