According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 in the United States were considered to be obese. Obesity is measured by a person’s Body Mass Index, or BMI, which takes into account both height and weight. A BMI in excess of 30 is considered obese.

Obesity can have many negative health effects for adults as well as children, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Children who are obese are also at higher risk for sleep apnea.

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed. Obstructive is the most common and is characterized by periodic, brief pauses in breathing during sleep. When the child stops breathing, he or she may wake up, thereby disrupting circadian rhythms and the sleep cycle. Of course, sleep is vitally important for children, and those who don’t get a restful night’s sleep may experience daytime sleepiness as well as various hormonal, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional issues.

Children who aren’t obese may also be diagnosed with sleep apnea, although this is often caused by enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids that relax during sleep and block the airway. In these cases, the tonsils and adenoids can be surgically removed and the issue corrected.

With obese children, however, fatty tissues in the upper airway can cause tonsils to enlarge and fat deposits in the neck and chest may make it more difficult for the chest and abdomen to expand with breath. In these cases, tonsillectomies are only effective about 50% of the time. Since weight has been positively associated with obesity, weight loss is one of the best methods for reducing the risk and effects of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can easily be mis-diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other behavioral and learning problems. If you suspect that your child might have sleep apnea, we recommend you bring him or her in for a consultation and screening.

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