Healthy Living

Study Reveals that Many Police Officers Suffer from Sleep Apnea

Study Reveals that Many Police Officers Suffer from Sleep Apnea

Although police officers work multiple shifts, they can still be affected by sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, which can take a negative toll on their health.

Sleep apnea can pose a risk not only to police officers but to the people they protect in their community. A recent study has shown that police officers are not immune to sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and that many police officers are still not diagnosed.

Dr. Charles A. Czeisler’s (Harvard Medical School) study

Out of the 5,000 officers who participated in the study, 40 percent of them were found to have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia. In addition, most of them had not sought treatment for their sleeping problem. What makes it more worrisome is that 46 percent of these police officers admitted that they have fallen asleep while driving, and 26 percent of them also said that this happened once or twice a month.

Nodding off while driving is not the only risk that fatigued police officers face. The study also discovered that police officers who are at high risk of having sleep apnea are more likely to commit serious safety and administrative errors. Moreover, there is a higher tendency for them to have uncontrollable anger toward their colleagues.

Dr. Czeisler, who is the head of this study, mentions that 4 out of 5 participants have an undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorder. He believes that this is a wake-up call, not just for the police force but in all workplaces, to have a screening program. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea must be detected early in order to prevent these conditions.

This study was the first to look at the rate of sleeping problems among police officers. 4,800 police officers from the USA and 150 from Canada took part and responded to the online and in-person questionnaires regarding their work habits and sleep. Around 70 percent of them participated in the follow-up survey that was conducted every month.

It is hard to conclude about the pervasiveness of sleep disorders in the police force and ordinary citizens. It is because the participants are not representatives of the police force in different countries. The study also did not include people who are in other professions. Dr. Czeisler notes that the rate of having a sleep disorder is indeed higher among the participants as compared to ordinary people.
Dr. Czeisler explains that the long working hours and shifting work schedules are to blame for the high rate. Fifteen percent of the participants mentioned that they had to work for 14 to 16 hours. One-fourth of them had to work at either day or night shift. Because of this, they are more prone to have shift work disorder, which 5 percent of the police officers have.

Ken Roden’s experience with sleep apnea

Ken Roden, who is a retired officer at Metro D.C., had difficulty to stay awake while driving his patrol car for 20 years. He ascribed it to his permanent work schedule, which was at midnight. Then, these shifts were often followed by long sessions in court.

Roden thought that his lack of sleep due to his abnormal work schedule was not a dangerous health problem. He only learned about having sleep apnea when he had a consultation with a doctor. His diagnosis was an accident. He visited a doctor that time for another condition and fell asleep while waiting. Because he was snoring, his doctor was able to diagnose him in his sleep. When his sleep study was completed, he received a CPAP machine as well. As a result, he was able to get better sleep and improve his condition.

Reasons why police officers suffer from sleep apnea

There are studies that show that people who are in the field of law enforcement die at a very young age. These studies were conducted by Dr. John Violanti, who was a police officer for 23 years in New York and is now a professor who studies about the health of police officers in the University at Buffalo. From his 40-year study, he found out that the average age that police officers die is 66 years old. This is 10 years earlier than the average life expectancy for an average male. He and his team also discovered that there is a higher chance for them to have higher-than-normal cholesterol levels, higher diastolic blood pressure, faster pulse rates, and higher possibility of having sleep apnea.

Having poor health is one of the main reasons for having sleep problems among police officers. Some of the common diseases that officers with sleep disorders have are depression, diabetes, burnout, and heart disease. Obesity was a problem for one-third of police officers and 79 percent of them were overweight. Thirty-four percent of the participants from Dr. Violanti’s study were affected by obstructive sleep apnea.

Effects of sleep disorders on police officers

Similar to other health problems, having a sleep disorder can affect an officer’s job. Eighteen percent of the officers who were studied by Dr. Violanti made serious administrative errors. This was compared against 13 percent who did not have a sleep disorder. Twenty-four percent of them made mistakes or safety errors due to exhaustion, and 34 percent of the participants had a problem with their temper.
Poor judgment is another effect of a sleep disorder, according to Michael A. Grandner, who is a researcher for the Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. He mentions that people who have a sleep disorder fall asleep without any idea that they are doing it. He adds that this is likely to happen to police officers who drive and make critical errors on the job.

Possible treatments for sleep disorders among police officers

Grandner states that promoting sleep to people, in general, is important to treat a sleeping disorder. In any work field, employers and employees should understand that a lack of sleep is not a sign of dedication. It is also not the right mindset for people to say that getting a few hours of sleep is enough.

Dr. Czeisler suggests that local governments take part in encouraging healthy sleeping habits for police officers.

The Massachusetts State Police, for example, have lower rates of obesity and sleep problems, mainly because their department offers them paid time to exercise and a gym.

Regular exercise can lessen obesity, which in turn, can lessen sleep disorders. Employers should take action to prevent sleep apnea in their employees. 

Using breathing machines and a mask at night (a CPAP) can treat sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea. For insomnia, behavioral therapy works. For police officers who have shift work disorder, they ought to lessen their work hours and shifts. By doing this, they can normalize their sleeping patterns.