Sleep problems often at core of wider health problems, experts say
DUBAI // Under-diagnosis of sleep disorders is believed to be the cause of a wide range of health conditions, from depression to heart attacks.
Human beings spend more than a third of their lives asleep, so it should not really be a surprise that a lack of it can be behind so many major health problems.
Dr Mohammed Al Houqani, director of the Al Ain Sleep Laboratory and assistant dean for medical education at the college of medicine and health sciences at UAE University, said health professionals needed to understand that sleep problems can be at the heart of many issues.
“If sleep is disturbed, it can lead to mental health problems, issues with the cardiovascular system and, of course, safety issues,” he said.
Research conducted by Dr Al Houqani and his team showed that 5 per cent of road accidents that resulted in admission to hospital were caused by sleepiness at the wheel.
About 90 per cent of the patients going to Dr Al Houqani suffer sleep apnoea – a relatively common condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing – but most are not referred by medical professionals.
“It’s a condition that is massively under-diagnosed,” he said.
“It’s usually the person sleeping beside the sufferer who identifies the symptoms.”
It is believed that about 25 million adults suffer with the condition in the United States.
Dr Al Houqani said a large number of those suffering with it are morbidly obese and sufferers are three times more likely to have a heart attack or cardiovascular morbidity than those without.
“Many family doctors and physicians aren’t asking patients about their sleep,” he said. “We [at the sleep laboratory] are doing lots of activities to educate healthcare providers and doing professional development.”
Although the cost of treatment for sleep apnoea is low, insurance companies still do not recognise it as a medical condition, another challenge Dr Al Houqani said must be overcome. When treated, patients’ “lives change”, he said.
Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director of the London Sleep Centre Dubai, a recently opened branch of the United Kingdom clinic, said the awareness challenge was not surprising nor unique to the UAE.
The sleep disorder neuropsychiatrist, who was educated in Canada and the UK, said that in the US sleep apnoea was recognised as a branch of medicine as late as 1973.
“In the UK there’s still no royal college of sleep medicine; it’s still a part of other specialities like neurology, psychiatry and respiratory illness.”
His patients at the clinic, which opened less than a year ago, come mostly with undiagnosed sleep apnoea.
“It’s not surprising given the high levels of obesity and diabetes here, because alongside those conditions often comes sleep apnoea,” Dr Ebrahim said.
Without good quality sleep, there is a high risk of anxiety and depression, in addition to conditions such as high blood pressure, metabolic conditions and diabetes, he said.
“We really need to raise awareness among physicians and psychiatrists to screen for sleep problems,” he said.