Greater Peoria Metro Area, IL

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The Genetics Behind Obstructive Sleep Apnea


By Sara Browning

Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders affect millions of Americans of all ages, disrupting quality of life and placing them at risk for more serious and even fatal health conditions.

According to the National Institute of Health, sleep apnea is as common as adult diabetes, affecting more than 12 million Americans. Genetics often play a major role in sleep apnea and other disorders, yet its influence is seldom recognized. Dr. Rod Willey, founder of the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders in Dunlap, Illinois, has spent years working with patients’ physicians in their overall diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care.

Genetic Predisposition
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a complex chronic condition that is undoubtedly influenced by multiple factors. Accumulating data suggests that there are strong genetic connections. Researchers estimate that approximately 40 percent of the variance in the apnea hypopnea index (AHI) may be explained by genetic factors. It is likely that genetic factors associated with craniofacial structure, body fat distribution, and neural control of the upper airway muscles interact to produce OSA.

Although some people are already familiar with sleep apnea, few people realize that this sleep disorder may be genetic. Recent years have seen an increase in the amount of research to establish the genetic contribution to the development of OSA, according to the National Institute of Biotechnology web site. In the ideal environment, multiple interactions of genes can result in OSA.

According to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, patients who suffer from sleep apnea may endow a genetic disposition of the disorder to any offspring. Evidence has suggested that members of the same family may suffer from the same form of sleep apnea.
Craniofacial Structure and Sleep Apnea

A person may inherit OSA just as they inherit physical attributes. Genetics often determine facial structure, which can easily be seen when looking at a family photo. Facial profiles come in many sizes and shapes from long and narrow, to short and round.

A person’s craniofacial complex, the composition of the face, skull, and oral cavities, can be one of the most significant genetic determinants of OSA. There are patterns of unusual facial features that occur in recognizable syndromes. Some of these craniofacial syndromes are genetic while others are from unknown causes or traumatic accidents. In many craniofacial syndromes, unusual features involve the nose, mouth, and jaw or resting muscle tone. Such features place the individual at risk for OSA syndrome.

Allergies and OSA
OSA may also be connected to allergy symptoms. According to Dr. Willey, “The development of the oral cavity is very dependent on the position of the tongue. If a child has allergies and cannot breathe through his nose, it will force him to become a mouth breather.  This can cause the child to keep the tongue on the floor of the mouth instead of the roof of the mouth, restricting lateral development. The lateral development of the upper teeth is dependent upon the pressure of the tongue resting upon the roof of the mouth. The end result is a high-vaulted roof and a narrow arch, which impedes the forward growth of the lower jaw, causing a narrow airway. These factors increase a person’s susceptibility to obstructive sleep apnea.”

OSA and School Performance
A child’s interrupted sleep will have both social and academic impacts. A very common disruption in a child’s sleep may be due to a parent’s loud snoring in the household. Mitigating these distractions will help prepare a child to return to school rested and in the best health.

In addition to grade school and high school, college dorm rooms are another area where sleep disorders are wrecking havoc on students and their ability to achieve their goals. “Failure rates on exams for medical students were markedly higher (42 percent) for frequent snorers than for non-snorers (13 percent),” according to WebMD.

Overcoming Sleep Apnea in the Workplace
Sleep disorders are affecting job performance, costing U.S. employers tens of billions of dollars annually due to decreases in productivity, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Employees are simply not receiving adequate sleep, and both employers and employees across every industry are paying the price. Consequences range from lost productivity and higher healthcare costs to serious, even deadly, accidents. Some of the more publically recognized examples include the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and many recent bus crashes — all of which have been attributed to sleep deprivation.

While these high-profile accidents make headlines, the fact is that most businesses are affected by sleep loss, drowsiness, and fatigue. Every day, there are sleep-deprived employees who negotiate contracts, produce merchandise, manage money, and drive school buses and trucks. If decision-making capabilities and/or response times are compromised by fatigue, the result can be serious—even disastrous.
“Today, businesses are searching for ways to increase efficiency while maintaining safety, especially during swing shifts,” says Dr. Willey. “By providing educational seminars at the workplace, we are able to help both the employee and the employer.”

Treatment of OSA
At the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders, patients living with snoring and obstructive sleep apnea receive a comfortable treatment option approved by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine known as Oral Appliance Therapy. An oral appliance is removable and is similar to an orthodontic retainer. It is designed to prevent the obstruction that occurs during sleep by repositioning the lower jaw, tongue, soft palate, and uvula. Most patients find it to be a comfortable alternative to medications and the CPAP machine.

Dr. Willey, a diplomate of the Academy of Sleep & Breathing and Academy of Clinical Sleep Disorders Disciplines, is trained and experienced in sleep apnea and the overall care of oral health. He provided general dentistry to Peoria for over 25 years, experiencing what it means to change someone’s life by changing their smile.

“After saving a life by treating sleep apnea, Dr. Willey’s passion and attention turned to the treatment of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders,” says Samra Molleck, office manager at Koala Center for Sleep Disorders.

Dr. Willey went on to start the Illinois Institute of Dental Sleep Medicine, now known as the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders, and turned his focus from changing lives to saving lives.

Touching every population group, from children to senior citizens, snoring, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders affect school and job performance, personal relationships and a person’s ability to enjoy life to the fullest. “Millions of people go undiagnosed and suffer needlessly from sleep disorders,” says Dr. Willey. “At Koala Center for Sleep Disorders, our primary goal is to help people sleep better than ever before so they can sleep, breathe and live — well. I am extremely passionate about treating patients with obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep complications. Although I recognize that I cannot change the world, I know I can make a world of difference in the people I treat.”

For more information on the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders, visit or call 309-565-8149. Koala Center for Sleep Disorders is located at 11825 North Knoxville Avenue, Suite 100, Dunlap, Illinois 61525.