Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sleep-Disordered Breathing May Speed Up Aging

Nighttime breathing disorders may accelerate aging, a Harvard study reports.

Sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) is an umbrella term used to describe various conditions that cause atypical respiratory patterns (e.g., sleep apnea) and result in the partial or complete cessation of regular breathing cycles throughout the night. Sleep-disordered breathing, and the sleep disruption caused by SDB, are associated with epigenetic age acceleration, according to a new study (Li et al., 2019) from Harvard Medical School.

Source: Photographee[dot]eu/Shutterstock

These findings were recently published in the journal Sleep and will also be presented on June 12 at SLEEP 2019, the 33rd annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS), in San Antonio, Texas.

"Sleep-disordered breathing is a common disorder that results in oxidative stress and inflammation and is associated with multiple age-related health disorders; however, SDB has not been well studied with respect to epigenetic aging," the authors reported.

In developed countries, it's estimated that SDB affects between 3–7 percent of middle-aged men and 2–5 percent of women.

During obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), someone typically stops breathing for 10 seconds or longer, which causes people to wake up—gasping for breath. During sleep hypopnea, breathing doesn't stop completely, but inhalations become very shallow. This results in lower blood oxygen saturation, which sounds an internal alarm that causes arousal and prevents someone from getting a good night's sleep. Disordered breathing patterns make it impossible to sleep soundly through the night, which causes those with SDB to become sleep-deprived and experience daytime exhaustion.

The latest SDB study was conducted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH). The lead author, Xiaoyu Li, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at BWH.

For this study, 622 adults had their sleep evaluated using polysomnography, which monitors breathing patterns, oxygen levels in the blood, heart rate, limb movements, and brain waves. DNA methylation—which is a marker for epigenetic age acceleration—was also measured.

"Increasing SDB severity and sleep disruption were associated with epigenetic age acceleration, independent of measured confounders," the authors concluded.

"People's biological age might not be the same as their chronological age," Li said in a statement. "Individuals whose biological age is higher than their chronological age exhibit age acceleration or fast aging. In our study, we found that more severe sleep-disordered breathing is associated with epigenetic age acceleration. Our data provide biological evidence supporting adverse physiological and health effects of untreated sleep-disordered breathing."

The good news for anyone who experiences SDB is that sleep apnea is treatable and epigenetic changes are reversible, according to Li. Some treatments for sleep-disordered breathing include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices and automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) therapy. Another tool for treating SDB is a mandibular repositioning device (MRD).


Xiaoyu Li, Yongmei Liu, Stephen S Rich, Jerome I Rotter, Susan Redline, Tamar Sofer. "Sleep Disordered Breathing Associated with Epigenetic Age Acceleration: Evidence from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis." Sleep (First published: April 10, 2019) DOI: 10.1093/sleep/zsz067.290