The History and Development of OSA

February 16, 2022

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is one of the most common health concerns in the world, with 1 billion people estimated to suffer from the disorder worldwide. While it may seem like OSA is a recent development in the healthcare world, the sleep disorder has been around in some shape or form for much longer than you’d expect.

In the early 20th century, OSA was lumped together with Pickwickian syndrome, also known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS). OHS affects obese patients and leads to low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood, resulting in many of the same symptoms associated with OSA: daytime sleepiness, poor-quality sleep, frequent headaches, and snoring. What this understanding of OSA has historically failed to realize, however, is that the disorder does not exclusively affect patients dealing with obesity. While many people with OHS also experience OSA, they are two distinct health conditions.

Research has also uncovered the possibility that OSA has become significantly more prevalent over time. Dental issues such as malocclusion and jaw underdevelopment are becoming increasingly more common as eating habits change and access to modern conveniences grows. Because much of the information we have about obstructive sleep apnea is relatively new and evolving, it’s essential to identify why it has become more prevalent over the years. Let’s explore how breastfeeding and modern eating habits have shaped our jaws and led to greater malocclusion and OSA throughout time, as well as why and how we’ve seen an uptick in sleep apnea research in the past few years.

The Decline of Breastfeeding

One of the biggest factors in the development of malocclusion and, therefore, OSA, is the decline of breastfeeding in modern society. In the past, babies were breastfed until a much later age than what’s considered appropriate in many of our cultures today. While parents once carried babies with them everywhere and breastfed them when they were hungry, many parents today have come to rely on modern conveniences such as bottles, pacifiers, and oral toys.

Breastfeeding is an essential process for the development of proper swallowing, alignment of the jaw, shaping of the hard palate, and alignment of the teeth. As babies learn to latch and suck, it helps them develop a number of necessary skills that can help them breathe, chew, and sleep more efficiently. This is because breastfeeding can prevent many of the orthodontic changes to the face and airway that are associated with bottle-feeding, such as weaker dental arches and stunted mandible growth.

Underdevelopment of the jaw is one of the most common risk factors of OSA, as certain shapes and sizes of the jaw can cause the airway to collapse more easily throughout the night, obstructing airflow and worsening the quality of your sleep. Failure to develop our jaws and skills in childhood through breastfeeding can lead to lasting effects in our adulthood, severely worsening our long-term sleep and breathing patterns.

Modern Eating Habits

Along with the decline in breastfeeding, babies today are commonly introduced to harder foods much later in life than they used to be. The soft modern diet has prevented young children from developing the bones, jaws, and face they once did, resulting in greater malocclusion and narrow dental arches. Along those same lines, studies—such as those conducted by Dr. R. S. Corrucini—have found that people who transition from nutrient-rich whole foods to nutrient-poor processed foods like those that we often eat today experience a significant decline in their overall health. This is especially true of oral health, with a high incidence of malocclusion, tooth decay, and crowded teeth associated with children raised in an environment full of soft, nutrient-poor foods.

Children once developed proper mechanics involved in chewing and breathing through eating harder, nutrient-dense food at a younger age. Today, they eat soft foods such as pureed baby food for years, causing them not to learn how the teeth and tongue can work together to break down hard foods. Whereas eating hard foods once helped kids develop proper dentofacial growth and perfectly formed jaws, today’s children are no longer exposed to them, resulting in an increased incidence of crooked teeth, degenerative diseases, and breathing disorders like OSA.

The Uptick in Sleep Apnea Research

In the 1950s and 1960s, the medical field saw a dramatic increase in sleep apnea research. Experts saw the core problem associated with the disorder: that people were not breathing properly during sleep. Then, after the condition was officially coined “obstructive sleep apnea,” research moved into exactly what it was, why it happened, and how it was caused in the 1970s. First, they looked at breathing in dogs and considered various treatment options—the most significant of these being tracheotomies.

By 1980, researcher Dr. Colin Sullivan had created a mask that helped humans breathe during sleep: the CPAP machine. Today, this has become the go-to treatment for the majority of sleep apnea sufferers.

However, the causes of sleep apnea can vary. For example, as malocclusion has developed, the underdevelopment of the jaws has become one of the most common causes of OSA. As a result, additional treatments have become available which, in some cases, may be better able to alleviate both the root cause and symptoms associated with the disorder. This is why it is so important to reach out to a medical provider if you think you have OSA. They will be able to help patients determine the right treatment for their lifestyle and needs.

Obstructive sleep apnea has not only become more common over time due to the decline in breastfeeding and the increase in soft food consumption, but research has also developed rapidly over recent years. As researchers learn of the effects of OSA, our knowledge of OSA will continue to evolve to cover a broader awareness of the sleep disorder and all that comes with it, as well as the best treatment to cover it.

For more information about obstructive sleep apnea and how medical providers could deliver excellent treatment protocols, read more of our blogs on or attend one of our upcoming events.