Four in 10 Australians miss out on a good night’s sleep, with inadequate rest costing over $60 billion a year in lost productivity. But research from the Alertness CRC into diagnosis and treatment for sleep disorders promises big benefits to our society and economy, Bianca Nogrady reports.
A bad night’s sleep can ruin your day, but imagine if every night for a year you suffer from a condition that prevents you from getting a full and satisfying night’s rest.
Then imagine that condition affecting four out of 10 Australians and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of our national problem of inadequate sleep.
A recent Sleep Health Foundation report by Deloitte Access Economics estimates the total cost of inadequate sleep in Australia was $66.3 billion in 2016–2017, which is why the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity has the mission “to promote the prevention and control of sleep loss and sleep disorders”.
Theme leader Professor Doug McEvoy says the Alertness CRC is searching for new tools and approaches to diagnose sleep problems with improved, targeted treatments. “While we talk about sleep apnoea and insomnia, within those conditions there is an amazing variety of presentations and causes of them,” he says. “To get good solutions for patients, you have to understand those differences so you can refine and personalise treatments.”
The Alertness CRC focuses on two leading causes of daytime sleepiness: insomnia and sleep apnoea. Each sleep disorder affects 10% of the population.
Insomnia is defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, and it can last from a few weeks to several years. It can be triggered by a stressful event, or related to conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and heart failure.
Sleep apnoea is a breathing problem whereby people don’t get enough oxygen during sleep so their brain periodically kicks them awake so they can breathe properly again. It’s often related to obesity, but some people have unexplained problems regulating their breathing while asleep.
Part of the challenge with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnoea is diagnosis, which requires complex tests performed by a specialist. Both conditions are also usually under-diagnosed.
One research focus of the Alertness CRC is developing simpler diagnostic tests that can be administered by a GP, nurse, psychologist or pharmacist.
“We start to involve community practitioners in the identification and management of the condition, and the specialists can then act as more of a tertiary referral system for difficult cases,” says McEvoy.
Another challenge for the Alertness CRC is finding effective treatments for sleep disorders. The current gold standard treatment for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which requires patients to wear a face mask during sleep. It’s effective, but awkward, and many people can’t or won’t use it.
Patients with insomnia invariably end up being prescribed sleeping medication, which carries the risk of side effects and ‘hangover symptoms’ the next day.
In collaboration with an industry partner and Australian researchers, the Alertness CRC is trialling new solutions to the significant problem of sleepiness.
“Sleep disorders are impacting the health and wellbeing of sufferers, and because they are so prevalent, they’re also impacting productivity and safety of the Australian community,” says McEvoy.