Dec. 21, 2011 -- Sleep deprivation may affect up to 4 in 10 police officers, leading to higher rates of safety violations, anger toward suspects, falling asleep while driving and other problems, a new study suggests.
In a study published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston surveyed nearly 5,000 police officers in North America. They found that 40 percent of the cops studied had a sleep disorder, many undiagnosed and untreated. The disorders, added the researchers, had implications for the officers' health and performance, and subsequently for public safety.
"Excessive sleepiness" is "common in police officers," study authors noted. "This is despite police officers apparently recognizing the dangers associated with drowsy driving; in a survey of North American police officers, almost 90 percent regarded drowsy driving to be as dangerous as drunk driving."
Demanding schedules may be to blame.
"Many police officers are at an even greater risk of poor outcomes because they are often required to work overnight, on rotating shifts, or both," they wrote.
Police officers are far from alone in sleep troubles. At least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders each year; an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems. Undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders interfere with personal health and lead to sleep deprivation, which leads to an increase in the risk of accidents and injuries.
After two years of monthly follow-ups, the study found that the officers also had a higher rate of reporting serious administrative errors, making safety violations attributed to fatigue, exhibiting anger toward suspects, falling asleep while driving or during meetings, and absenteeism.
Just under half admitted to nodding off or falling asleep while driving. A quarter reported doing so at least one or two times per month.
"We know that sleep deprivation results in impaired performance both cognitively, physically and emotionally, which can impact decision-making and response time, which are crucial to high stress professions such as law enforcement," said Dr. Nanci Yang, an associate clinical professor at Stanford University who was not directly involved with the study. "It is paramount to public safety that it be addressed."
Researchers reported that participants with sleep disorders also had higher rates of mental and health conditions such as diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease.
Obstructive sleep apnea -- when breathing is paused during sleep because of airway obstruction -- was the most common condition, seen in more than 30 percent of the study's participants. This was followed by moderate to severe insomnia and excessive sleepiness.
"Consistent with a multitude of other studies on sleep disorders, the officers with these conditions had higher rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as diabetes, hypertension and poor job performance," said Dr. Stanley Wang, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Heart Hospital of Austin in Austin, Texas. "This study highlights the startling need to raise awareness of sleep disorders so we can get these people treated and try to reduce their risk of heart disease while improving their job performance. This is true not only for police officers, but for the population in general."
Past research suggests police officers are not the only ones for whom sleep deprivation may risk public safety. Shift work for physicians, truck drivers and pilots has been reviewed and published in medical literature. Work restrictions and duty hours are in effect in some professional practices.
"Awareness in general is important, whether this is with workers in public safety, transportation, oil or chemical plants, manufacturing," said Dr. James Herdegen, medical director of the Sleep Science Center at The University of Illinois.
Herdegen said better scheduling may go a long way to avoiding dangerous situations. "Sleep extension and optimization of shift work schedules in public health workers might be a simple, readily addressable intervention for some of the described sleep disorders."
And Wang said the new study may be a crucial step in addressing the sleep problems many police officers face.
"It is critically important that we continue to learn more and, at the same time, raise awareness so that these people can be evaluated and treated."