Research into deaths of firefighters found that 60% are attributed to vehicle accidents or heart attacks. New research into the figure concludes that obstructive sleep disorders may be a significant contributing factor.

Published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers screened 7,000 firefighters in 66 fire departments across the nation for insomnia, obstructive sleep disorders, shift work syndrome and restless leg syndrome. Interviews were conducted with the participants, and auto accidents were documented from descriptions by the subject and police reports.

The researchers found 37% of the firefighters tested positive for at least one sleep disorder, the most common being sleep apnea. Those with a sleep disorder saw their chances of being in an accident jump two-fold over a person without a sleep disorder.

Risks of having heart disease or diabetes also jumped two-fold over a control. With a sleep disorder, the chances of depression and/or anxiety jumped three-fold. Researchers were quick to acknowledge that pieces of the study were reliant on self-reporting, which isn’t as reliable. Still, the number of those diagnosed through the study shows a definite toll on first-responders.

The sleep study on firefighters was conducted by a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Of the 37% that were diagnosed, about 80 percent of those cases were untreated. This was according to Laura K. Barger, associate physiologist in BWH’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, who also led the study.

This sleep study lines up with one from Occupational and Environmental Medicine. That study discussed the cognitive issues workers suffer from due to prolonged shift work. Outside of factory jobs, firefighters have to endure the irregular patterns of shifts.

Combine the irregular shift work with high stress, and you have the makings of sleep disorder epidemic. Firefighters can’t just hit a switch and go back to sleep after risking their lives. Not many people have that ability.

This study points to a problem that is fixable. If treated, a person can return to a normal and healthy life.

According to the CDC, 25 percent of Americans report occasional sleep difficulties, while 10 percent are diagnosed with chronic insomnia or other sleep disorders. It’s not only a problem for first-responders, but people who work irregular hours or fluctuating shift work.

The study is in the latest Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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