Closeup of older woman sleeping in bed

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and dementia in older adults, yet it remains underdiagnosed and undertreated in people aged 50 years and older, a new study has found.

With the goal of highlighting areas of inequity in OSA care, researchers examined data from a nationally representative sample of 9,000 older participants in the 2016 Health and Retirement Study. Participants were aged 50 years and older and were not residents of long-term care facilities or other institutions.

Most study participants (6,908) had possible undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea, investigators found. And about 1,000 more were diagnosed yet not receiving treatment.

Participants with possible undiagnosed OSA were more likely to be racial minorities and Hispanic and/or Latino and uninsured. They were also more likely to be men and have relatively lower education and income levels than those who were diagnosed and treated.

The findings track with past research and likely reflect problems with access to preventative healthcare, study lead Christopher Kaufmann, PhD, of the University of Florida College of Medicine said.

Notably, participants with comorbidities and greater health service use were more likely to be diagnosed, “raising the possibility that increasing access to healthcare may help identify those with undiagnosed OSA,” he and his colleagues wrote. This could include improving access to insurance coverage and transportation to clinics — particularly in older populations, they concluded.

Public education efforts aimed at older adults are also warranted, they added.

“We really need to increase public awareness of obstructive sleep apnea,” Kaufmann said in a statement. “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.”

The study was published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

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