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Are SIDS and sleep apnea related?

A study suggests that sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) might be more common in families that suffer from the adult sleeping disorder sleep apnea,.

Though the cause of SIDS remains mysterious, new evidence supports the idea that both disorders are caused by a narrowed upper airway resulting from the way the skull is formed, a characteristic that is inherited.

The study compared the number of SIDS cases in 29 families with sleep apnea and 35 families without sleep apnea. Researchers had families fill out questionnaires about the incidence of infant death. Subjects provided data from four generations of each family so that 352 sleep apnea family members and 408 control family members were covered.

The families prone to sleep apnea -- in which breathing stops for short periods during sleep and can lead to snoring or disturbed sleep -- reported eight unexplained infant deaths. The control families reported no unexplained, unexpected infant deaths, although one infant had died of mother-child blood-type incompatibility. Two of the sleep apnea families reported more than one SIDS death. In one case, a pair of twins had died without explanation. When researchers examined the facial structure of four of the six families that reported SIDS death, they found the shapes were significantly different from the normal families.

The results suggest that SIDS and adult sleep apnea are associated and that both could result from obstructive apnea due to facial structure narrowing the upper airway.

Sleep apnea runs in families. Other work has suggested that certain families may be at higher risk for SIDS, although like most things about SIDS, this remains debated. It is a thorny issue. The idea has been that sleep apnea may be the final common pathway of SIDS, but not necessarily the cause. The problem with SIDS research is that no one has ever witnessed a SIDS death.

In children who often appear tired or have trouble staying awake in school, check for potential obstructive apnea caused by abnormally large adenoids or tonsils.

Another study that found that babies considered at high risk of SIDS -- those who had stopped breathing and were by chance found and resuscitated -- had a higher chance of having a father with sleep apnea-like symptoms. This could support the idea that sleep apnea is related to SIDS. But how they are related and whether it is causative is another question.

Next: Attention on sleep apnea