The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 100 million people around the world have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition where breathing pauses during sleep due to a narrowed or partly blocked airway. In the United States, OSA is estimated to affect one in four men and one in nine women.
Several studies indicate that up to 80% of OSA sufferers are undiagnosed. With only 20% of people getting the help they need via continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)—widely viewed as the gold standard therapy for OSA—it’s probable that the daytime sleepiness experienced by so many is a symptom of a bigger problem. According to the WHO, OSA affects children and adults, and has been associated with increased frequency of accidents and arterial hypertension.
Unfortunately, the undiagnosed legions include many people in the U.S. transportation industry. For example, the driver of a train that derailed late last year in New York City, killing four passengers, reportedly suffered from “severe sleep apnea.” According to the National Transportation Safety Board, William Rockefeller, the engineer at the controls of the Metro-North commuter train that derailed in the Bronx, had the sleep disorder at the time of the accident, and it had not previously been diagnosed.
In a development that could have wide-ranging implications for those who treat sleep disorders and/or sell sleep-related equipment, Reuters and other news outlets confirmed what sufferers already knew, namely that sleep apnea can “cause drowsiness.”
“I was dazed, you know, looking straight ahead, almost like mesmerized,” Rockefeller reportedly told investigators. “I don’t know if anybody’s ever experienced like driving a long period of time in a car and staring at the tail lights in front of them, and you get almost like that hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead.”
The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea has been extensively studied in recent decades and the WHO estimated that between 1% and 6% of the adult population may have OSA. A Wisconsin cohort study, which looked at 1,069 employed men and women between 30 and 60 years of age, found that 9% of women and 24% of men had an apnea index that warranted action. Especially if you snore, it’s time to visit a sleep doc and see whether you need a sleep test.