Poor sleep a cause of mental ill health

A West Australian study of more than 500 people who suffered from obstructive sleep apnea, but were yet to begin treatment, has found more than 40 per cent of them also experienced problems with their memory.

These sufferers also reported higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress. 

Dr Romola Bucks, from the University of WA, said this pointed to the way poor quality sleep could have a major, but often overlooked, impact on mental health.

It could be the “silent disorder” behind a host of depressive illness and cognitive problems across the community, she said.

“We tend to think well if someone is feeling sad perhaps it is something in their past, a bereavement, perhaps they are low in mood and motivation because of stress at work or relationship difficulties,” Dr Bucks told AAP on Thursday.

“Well, maybe, for quite a large number of people, their poor motivation and lack of get up and go, their irritability and marital strain and so on, is related to an undiagnosed sleep disorder.

“And the great thing about that is we can treat it.”

Sleep apnoea is a common disorder that can go overlooked for years, in which a person’s airway collapses during sleep causing them to rouse repeatedly and have a less fulfilling sleep.

The standard treatment is a mask worn at night to deliver sufficient air pressure to keep the person’s airways open, though many sufferers were thought to remain undiagnosed and so go without this therapy.

Dr Bucks said there were cases where people were diagnosed with depression, or even the early stages of dementia, and it later emerged they had an untreated sleep disorder.

Research also shows when people were quizzed about the cause of their stress, cognitive and other problems, even fatigue, there was areluctance to admit it could be related to their sleep.

“Sleep is such a powerful factor in our lives and yet we tend to think of it as something that is quite unimportant … some people almost see it as a weakness,” Dr Bucks said.

“It is harder to cope with the stresses of daily life when you are tired.

“It is harder to have good relationships with your partner, your children, and the rest of your family if you are short tempered.”

Dr Bucks’ research was presented at the 22nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australasian Sleep Association and Australasian Sleep Technologists Association, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

By Danny Rose, © 2010 AAP
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