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Sleep Disorders Affect 40% of Police Officers

Sleep disorders among police officers can result in accidents

Excuse me, officer, have you been sleeping? A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that 40% of officers have a sleep disorder, and that 45.9% reported they fell asleep while driving.

Sleepy police officers is a health and safety issue

According to Mark W. Mahowald, MD, neurologist and director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, there are nearly 100 different sleep/wake disorders. Among the most commonly recognized ones are insomnia, restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, shift work disorder, and narcolepsy.

These and other sleep disorders can disrupt the lives of anyone who suffers with them, as well as jeopardize their health and safety. When it comes to police officers, data have shown that more of them die due to unintended events than during the commission of felonies, and it was hypothesized that fatigue related to sleep problems could be a cause.

Therefore, Shantha M.W. Rajaratnam, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and colleagues undertook an evaluation of major sleep disorders and their impact on police officers. Of a total of 4,957 officers (average age, 38.5 years) who participated in either on-site or online screening, 40.4% screened positive for at least one sleep disorder. Among other findings:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea was the most common disorder, found in 33.6%
  • Moderate to severe insomnia affected 6.5%
  • Shift work disorder was found in 5.4%
  • Presence of obstructive sleep apnea was associated with also having diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a high intake of caffeine
  • Excessive sleepiness was indicated in 28.5%
  • Nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least 1 to 2 times per month was reported by 56.9% of those who reported ever falling asleep while at the wheel
  • Falling asleep while driving at least 1 to 2 times per week was reported by 6.2% of the total group

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Among the officers screened positive for a sleep disorder versus those who did not:

  • Depression was reported by 203 (10.7%) vs. 37 (4.4%)
  • Emotional exhaustion was reported by 399 (34.1%) vs. 89 (17.9%)
  • Falling asleep while driving was reported by 388 (20%) vs. 66 (7.9%)

Police officers who screened positive were also more likely than their colleagues who screened negative for any sleep disorder to make important administrative mistakes, display uncontrolled anger toward the public, be absent from work, fall asleep during meetings, and be the subject of complaints by citizens.

The authors noted that from 2009 through 2010, more than 33% of in-the-line-of-duty deaths among police officers were associated with motor vehicle crashes. A major cause of such crashes is sleepy drivers. Research has also shown that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with a two- to threefold greater risk of motor vehicle crashes.

The high percentage of sleep disorders among police officers indicated in this study is a cause for concern, given their role to protect public safety, and for their own health. Therefore, the authors concluded that “further research is needed to determine whether sleep disorder prevention, screening, and treatment programs in occupational settings will reduce these risks.”

National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. Research bulletin: law enforcement officer deaths: preliminary 2010.
Rajaratnam SMW et al. Journal of the American Medical Association 2011; 306(23): 2567-78
Tregear S et al. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2009; 5(6): 573-81

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons