Undiagnosed Sleep Problems May Be Common Among Firefighters

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THURSDAY, Nov. 13, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, shift work disorder and restless leg syndrome are common among firefighters, new research shows.

These conditions are linked with a higher risk for car accidents, a research team from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston suggests.

Firefighters with sleep disorders are also more likely to have chronic health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. However, most firefighters with sleep disorders are not receiving the treatment they need, the study revealed.

"Our findings demonstrate the impact of common sleep disorders on firefighter health and safety, and their connection to the two leading causes of death among firefighters," which are heart attacks and car crashes, explained Laura Barger, associate physiologist in Brigham and Women's Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.

"Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of firefighters who screened positive for a common sleep disorder were undiagnosed and untreated," Barger said in a hospital news release.

In conducting the study, researchers examined nearly 7,000 firefighters from 66 different fire departments across the United States. The firefighters were evaluated for common sleep disorders and other health issues. The participants were also asked about their likelihood of falling asleep at the wheel, their involvement in car accidents, as well as any injuries or close calls they had while driving.

Of all the firefighters included in the study, 37 percent were diagnosed with a sleep disorder. These firefighters were more likely to have been involved in a car accident and more likely to report having fallen asleep while driving, the findings showed.

The participants with a sleep disorder were also more likely to have health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, according to the study published in the Nov. 13 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Although the study found an association between sleep disorders and certain health problems in firefighters, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of Brigham and Women's Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, explained in the news release that "occupational sleep disorder screening programs can identify individuals who are vulnerable to adverse safety and health consequences, including those that are leading causes of death in firefighters."

Czeisler concluded, "This study provides the rationale for further research evaluating the effectiveness of occupational sleep disorders management programs on disease risk, mental health and safety outcomes."

More information

The National Sleep Foundation has more about sleep disorders.