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Snoring is an incredibly common problem—more than half of the respondents in a National Sleep Foundation poll said other people had told them they snore. Among those who snore, 64 percent say their snoring can be as loud as talking, and one in six say they snore so loudly it can be heard in the next room.
But snoring doesn’t merely disturb your bedmate; it’s also an indication that you may have a sleep-disordered breathing problem. And even if it can’t be officially diagnosed as sleep apnea, it may still be condition worth investigating. (See also our posts “Sleep Apnea Symptoms: How a Sleep Study Test Can Help.”)
Why Do People Snore?
Typically, the upper airway is compromised in some way. During sleep, the muscles in the mouth and upper airway relax, including those in the throat, tongue, and soft palate. These muscles and tissues obstruct the airway and partially block air intake. As you automatically inhale more deeply to take in more air, you pull even more of this flaccid tissue into the airway. The snoring noise comes from the vibrations of the floppy tissue as air passes through the narrowed opening.
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Loud and Long
And why do people snore, in some cases, extremely loudly? A compromised airway causes varying degrees of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), in which floppy tissues block the airway, interrupting breathing and briefly rousing you from sleep.
Research shows that loud snoring with breathing pauses is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Loud snorers had 40 percent greater odds of having high blood pressure, 34 percent greater odds of having a heart attack, and 67 percent greater odds of having a stroke compared with people who do not snore.
Quiet snoring was associated only with an increased risk of high blood pressure in women. Loud snoring was also associated with increased use of health care resources (emergency visits and hospitalizations).
In the most severe cases of snoring, the airway is completely sealed off and airflow to the lungs is repeatedly blocked—sometimes hundreds of times during the night. This condition, called obstructive sleep apnea, drastically decreases blood oxygen (hypoxia), stressing your heart, blood vessels, and lungs.
Having sleep apnea substantially increases your risk of high blood pressure, may elevate blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension), and may cause an irregular heartbeat. It also increases the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. Recent research also suggests that women with sleep-disordered breathing problems are more likely to develop cognitive impairment or dementia.
Snoring and Aging
Finally, why do people snore more as they age?
Well, snoring increases among women in their 50s after they enter menopause. One study found that snoring risk increases along with body mass index (BMI, a ratio of height to weight), especially among less-active women.
Risk factors for sleep-disordered breathing and sleep apnea include obesity (for men, a neck size larger than 17 inches), smoking, and alcohol consumption. Using tranquilizers or muscle relaxants also can increase your risk. How loudly you snore does not always indicate how severe the breathing problem is.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.