AHA Targets Rising Prevalence of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

Richard Mark Kirkner

August 26, 2021

Obstructive sleep apnea is becoming more common in children and adolescents as the prevalence of obesity increases, but it may also be a preventable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, according to a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association.

The statement focuses on the links between OSA and CVD risk factors in children and adolescents, and reviews diagnostic strategies and treatments. The writing committee reported that 1%-6% of children and adolescents have OSA, as do up to 60% of adolescents considered obese.

The statement was created by the AHA's Atherosclerosis, Hypertension, and Obesity in the Young subcommittee of the Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young and was published online in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Carissa M. Baker-Smith, MD, chair of the writing group chair and director of pediatric preventive cardiology at Nemours Cardiac Center, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, Del., explained the rationale for issuing the statement at this time, noting that the relationship between OSA and CVD in adults is well documented.

"There has been less focus on the importance of recognizing and treating sleep apnea in youth," she said in an interview. "Thus, we felt that it was vitally important to get the word out to parents and to providers that paying attention to the quality and duration of your child's sleep is vitally important to a child's long-term heart health. Risk factors for heart disease, when present in childhood, can persist into adulthood."

Clarity on Polysomnography

For making the diagnosis of OSA in children, the statement provides clarity on the use of polysomnography and the role of the apnea-hypopnea index, which is lower in children with OSA than in adults. "One controversy, or at least as I saw it, was whether or not polysomnography testing is always required to make the diagnosis of OSA and before proceeding with tonsil and adenoid removal among children for whom enlarged tonsils and adenoids are present," Baker-Smith said. "Polysomnography testing is not always needed before an ear, nose, and throat surgeon may recommend surgery."

The statement also noted that history and physical examination may not yield enough reliable information to distinguish OSA from snoring.

In areas where sleep laboratories that work with children aren't available, alternative tests such as daytime nap polysomnography, nocturnal oximetry, and nocturnal video recording may be used – with a caveat. "These alternative tests have weaker positive and negative predictive values when compared with polysomnography," the writing committee noted. Home sleep apnea tests aren't recommended in children. Questionnaires "are useful as screening, but not as diagnostic tools."

Pediatric patients being evaluated for OSA should also be screened for hypertension and metabolic syndrome, as well as central nervous system and behavioral disorders. Diagnosing OSA in children and adolescents requires "a high index of suspicion," the committee wrote.

Pediatricians and pediatric cardiologists should exercise that high index of suspicion when receiving referrals for cardiac evaluations for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication, Baker-Smith said. "Take the time to ask about a child's sleep – snoring, apnea, etc. – especially if the child has obesity, difficulty focusing during the day, and if there is evidence of systemic hypertension or other signs of metabolic syndrome," she said.

Risk Factors for OSA in Children

The statement also reviewed risk factors for OSA, among them obesity, particularly among children younger than 6 years. Other risk factors include upper and lower airway disease, hypotonia, parental history of hyperplasia of the adenoids and tonsils, craniofacial malformations, and neuromuscular disorders. However, the committee cited "limited data" to support that children with congenital heart disease may be at greater risk for OSA and sleep-disordered breathing (SDB).

Black children are at significantly greater risk, and socioeconomic factors "may be potential confounders," the committee stated. Other risk factors include allergic rhinitis and sickle cell disease.

But the statement underscores that "obesity is the main risk factor" for OSA in children and adolescents, and that the presence of increased inflammation may explain this relationship. Steroids may alleviate these symptoms, even in nonobese children, and removal of the adenoids or tonsils is an option to reduce inflammation in children with OSA.

"Obesity is a significant risk factor for sleep disturbances and obstructive sleep apnea, and the severity of sleep apnea may be improved by weight-loss interventions, which then improves metabolic syndrome factors such as insulin sensitivity," Baker-Smith said. "We need to increase awareness about how the rising prevalence of obesity may be impacting sleep quality in kids and recognize sleep-disordered breathing as something that could contribute to risks for hypertension and later cardiovascular disease."

Children in whom OSA is suspected should also undergo screening for metabolic syndrome, and central nervous system and behavioral disorders.

Cardiovascular Risks

The statement explores the connection between cardiovascular complications and SDB and OSA in depth.

"Inadequate sleep duration of < 5 hours per night in children and adolescents has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension and is also associated with an increased prevalence of obesity," the committee wrote.

However, the statement left one question hanging: whether OSA alone or obesity cause higher BP in younger patients with OSA. But the committee concluded that BP levels increase with the severity of OSA, although the effects can vary with age. OSA in children peaks between ages 2 and 8, corresponding to the peak prevalence of hypertrophy of the tonsils and adenoids. Children aged 10-11 with more severe OSA may have BP dysregulation, while older adolescents develop higher sustained BP. Obesity may be a confounder for daytime BP elevations, while nighttime hypertension depends less on obesity and more on OSA severity.

"OSA is associated with abnormal BP in youth and, in particular, higher nighttime blood pressures and loss of the normal decline in BP that should occur during sleep," Baker-Smith said. "Children with OSA appear to have higher BP than controls during both sleep and wake times, and BP levels increase with increasing severity of OSA."

Nonetheless, children with OSA are at greater risk for other cardiovascular problems. Left ventricular hypertrophy may be a secondary outcome. "The presence of obstructive sleep apnea in children is associated with an 11-fold increased risk for LVH in children, a relationship not seen in the presence of primary snoring alone," Baker-Smith said.

Baker-Smith had no relevant disclosures. Coauthor Amal Isaiah, MD, is coinventor of an imaging system for sleep apnea and receives royalties from the University of Maryland. The other coauthors have no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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