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Sleep apnea correlates with increased traffic accidents for older adults, sleep expert says

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Katherine Streeter for NPR
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Sleep apnea leads to chronic sleep deprivation, which can lead to dangerous behavior while driving.

A new study out of Washington University shows a correlation between sleep apnea and traffic accidents in older adults. Sleep apnea occurs when breathing is interrupted at least five times an hour during the night, and it affects an estimated 30% to 50% of older adults. Since it prevents people from reaching a state of deep sleep, it puts people in chronic states of sleep deprivation, which can lead to risky behavior on the road.

Dr. Brendan Lucey, an associate professor of neurology at Washington University and the director of its Sleep Medicine Center, is one of the authors of the study. He and his team studied more than 100,000 driving trips to explore a connection between sleep interruptions and unsafe driving practices.

“My colleague, Ganesh Babulal, and his research group placed GPS data loggers in the cars that would continuously monitor information about the speed of the car, hard braking, and sudden acceleration,” Lucey said. “And using this data, they were able to create measures of aggressive driving or adverse driving behaviors.”

He explained that even a mild case of sleep apnea could cause people to make hazardous decisions on the road. A mild case is defined as having between 5 and 15 breathing interruptions per hour, while a severe case has more than 30 — that’s one every two minutes.

“If you had an increase of eight breathing events per hour, that led to being about 1.7 times more likely to have an adverse driving event per trip,” he said.

Listen: How sleep apnea relates to traffic accidents

Lucey said he hoped this study would lead to proper diagnoses and treatment for older adults, which would make their driving safer — and help keep them driving for longer. His research points out that older adults being able to drive for more years is beneficial.

“It's a very exciting possibility because sleep apnea is a very treatable condition. And potentially we could increase the time that older adults are able to drive safely,” he said.

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea go undiagnosed. If they aren’t dealing with tiredness during the day, they might not realize there’s something wrong. But Lucey says other signs may suggest it’s time to get tested.

“If there's any suspicion about problems with breathing while sleeping — such as snoring with long pauses in the snoring, or waking up gasping for breath being observed by a bed partner — I would encourage them to speak to their physician about it,” he said.

Sleep apnea treatment comes in many different forms. One of the most common and effective is a CPAP machine, which sends pressurized air flow through the nose and mouth. However, you might face a delay if you’re in need of one. A recall on CPAP devices last June from one big manufacturer left the company focused on fixing existing devices rather than making new ones.

“And that's really reduced the number that are being made by them because they had 40% of the market share,” Lucey said. “And then that's been further hampered by the supply chain issues that have impacted so many other things that we buy.” However, he said, there are other similarly noninvasive treatment options, like dental devices worn at night.

Lucey said that as a rule, if your sleep is being disrupted regularly, it’s best to get it checked out.

“If you feel like your sleep quality is poor and you're not able to undertake the tasks you like to do or the activities you like to do during the day because you're too drowsy," he said, "that may be a good sign to speak with your doctor about your sleep problems and potentially get evaluated.”

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