Asleep at the Wheel

Sleep disorders common among police pose serious health safety risks

(RxWiki News) As if police officers did not already face enough dangers on the job, they can now add one more hazard to the list: a high incidence of sleep disorders.

Approximately 40 percent of police officers suffer from sleep apnea, insomnia or another sleeping disorder, according to a survey of nearly 5,000 police from the United States and Canada.

Those who had at least one disorder also showed higher rates of depression, emotional burnout and falling asleep while driving, potentially putting themselves and public safety at risk.

"Untreated sleeping disorders can have a serious negative impact on health, safety and job performance."

Santha Rajaratnam, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, led a team who screened 3,693 police officers through an online survey and 1,264 officers at on on-site screening in July 2005.

The officers, who had an average of 12.7 years of police service, then answered monthly follow-up surveys for two and a half years, ending in December 2007.

One third of the group screened positive for obstructive sleep apnea while 6.5 percent had moderate to severe insomnia and 5.4 percent had shift work disorder, which causes insomnia and excessive sleepiness for those who work during the hours when humans would normally sleep.

About 22% of the respondents reported that they have fallen asleep while driving at least one to two times a month.

Those with a sleeping disorder were more than twice as likely to report having depression or falling asleep at the wheel, and the group with sleep apnea had associations with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Speaking with dailyRx, Dr. William Kohler, a board-certified sleep medicine doctor and director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill, Florida, said that untreated sleep apnea can lead to a wide range of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, depression, elevated cholesterol, elevated blood sugar and dementia.

"There are a lot of consequences to not treating the underlying sleep problems, and this article is just the tip of the iceberg," Kohler said. "Not just police officers but various public servants have an enormous amount of sleep problems going on that are woefully undiagnosed, including bus drivers, physicians, truck drivers and pilots."

Kohler believes undiagnosed sleeping problems, especially among professions like these, is a major public safety issue. Sleeping disorders can affect more than just the person not getting a good night's rest. He pointed out that major historical disasters like Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez crash were attributed in part to poor judgment related to sleep deprivation. Higher rates of fatigue and sleepiness have already been associated with irritability and a higher likelihood of getting into a car crash or making a mistake at work.

These police were no different. Those who screened positive for a sleeping disorder were more likely than their well-rested counterparts to skip work, fall asleep during a meeting, or commit safety or professional violations, such as having uncontrollable anger at citizens or suspects.

The report concludes that more research should be done to determine whether screening, prevention and treatment programs at officers' work will reduce the health and safety risks posed by these conditions.

The study appears in the December 21 issue of JAMA.

Review Date: 
December 21, 2011