40 Percent Of Cops Have Sleep Disorders
December 21, 2011

40 Percent Of Cops Have Sleep Disorders

In a new survey of police officers from the United States and Canada, researchers found that 40 percent have symptoms of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea and insomnia, increasing the risk of adverse health, safety and performance outcomes of many lawmen.

The study, conducted by Shantha M.W. Rajaratnam, Ph.D. and colleagues at Brigham and Women´s Hospital in Boston, examined the risk of major sleep disorders and adverse outcomes among 3,693 officers in North America. The officers participated in either an online or an onsite screening and monthly follow-up surveys between July 2005 and December 2007. An additional 1,264 officers from municipal and state police officers also participated in the study. The average age of the officers was 38.5 years old, with an average of 12.7 years of police service.

More than 50 million people in the US are affected by sleep disorders, according to background information in the study, published in the December 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. But most of these disorders go undiagnosed and remain untreated.

“Police officers frequently work extended shifts and long work weeks, which in other occupations are associated with increased risk of errors, unintended injuries, and motor vehicle crashes. According to data through the year 2003, more officers are killed by unintended adverse events than during the commission of felonies,” wrote Rajaratnam in her paper.

“It has been hypothesized that fatigue– likely due to reduced duration and quality of sleep and untreated sleep disorders–may play an important role in police officer unintentional injuries and fatalities. To date, the effect of sleep disorders on police officer health, safety, and performance has not been systematically investigated,” she and her colleagues wrote.

Officers who screened positive for sleep disorders are more likely to be burnt out, depressed  or have anxiety. “In general we have this cultural attitude of, sleep is for the weak,” Dr. Michael Grandner, from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Reuters.

“When you´re in an environment where signs of weakness are particularly discouraged, there may be a social pressure to not address sleep problems or to shrug them off,” added Grandner, the author of a commentary published alongside the new study in JAMA.

But when it is police officers who are suffering from sleep problems, it becomes a public health and safety problem. “It´s not just the people with sleep disorders that are affected,” Grandner told Reuters Health. “If they´re impaired, you´re at risk.”

Of the 4,957 participants in the study, a total of 2,003 (40 percent) screened positive for at least 1 sleep disorder. Of the total group, 1,666 (33 percent) screened positive for sleep apnea, the most common sleep disorder, followed by 281 (6.5 percent) for moderate to severe insomnia, and 269 (5.4 percent) with shift work disorder.

Of those who tested positive for a sleep disorder, 203 (10.1 percent) reported having depression. Also, 399 (19.9 percent) of the positive-screen group reported emotional exhaustion, and 388 (19.3 percent) reported falling asleep at the wheel. Numbers in the negative-screen group for all instances were on average 5 times lower than the positive-screened group.

Furthermore, positive screening for obstructive sleep apnea was also associated with a diagnosis of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high caffeine consumption.

Researchers say police departments could do more to make sure their officers with sleep disorders get the appropriate treatment they need, which may include machines to help them sleep at night, therapy or changes in their work schedules.

“You have people who are sleep deprived, which means that their ability to make good decisions, to respond effectively, to drive emergency vehicles well...all of those things are impaired,” said Bryan Vila, a criminal justice professor who studies sleep and performance in cops at Washington State University in Spokane but wasn´t involved in the new study.

Dr. Charles Czeisler from Brigham and Women´s Hospital, a co-author of the study, said that being overweight increases the risk of sleep apnea, and that almost 80 percent of the officers in the survey were overweight or obese.

Czeisler noted that the lowest rates of sleep apnea and obesity were in Massachusetts state cops. Perhaps one key factor is that those officers get one hour of paid exercise time for every work shift, he told Reuters Health. They also undergo regular fitness tests that simulate chasing a suspect or dragging a victim, with a bonus if they pass.

“It´s an impressive program and perhaps a model for the nation,” Czeisler said.

“Not only is sleep important for health, it´s also important for functioning,” Grandner said. “We´re making it much harder for (police officers) than it needs to be. They´d have a much better time doing their job if we were able to take better care of them.”

“What are we doing with impaired cops working these critical jobs where the public safety is at risk?” Vila, also a former law enforcement officer, told Reuters Health. “This is a critical problem, and it affects a population we rely on to do some of the most sensitive things in society.”

“In conclusion, a large proportion of police officers in our sample showed a positive sleep disorder screening result, which was associated with adverse health, safety, and performance outcomes. Further research is needed to determine whether sleep disorder prevention, screening, and treatment programs in occupational settings will reduce these risks,” the study authors wrote.

Some of the researchers report receiving funding from pharmaceutical companies, including those that develop and manufacture sleeping pills. The current research was funded by a sleep medicine foundation as well as the US Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers plan to further study sleep disorders in FEMA and in firefighters.


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