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USA Today: "Pilots, others not tested for sleep disorders"

July 28, 2009

Alan Levin, USA Today staff writer, reports on the potential dangers facing those with undiagnosed sleep apnea:

In December 2007, airline Capt. Scott Oltman went to his doctor complaining of loud snoring. The doctor, Oltman later recalled, told him to "lose weight, eat less salt, and relax." Three months later — after Oltman fell asleep while flying 40 passengers in a regional jet over Hawaii — the real reason for the snoring emerged. The veteran pilot was suffering from severe sleep apnea, which constricted his breathing and repeatedly woke him during the night, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of Sleep Medicine at Harvard's Brigham & Women's Hospital, stated "We have to take sleep disorders and sleep deprivation seriously as a major cause of accidents, particularly in unforgiving situations like transportation."

Increasing evidence indicates that prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea may be substantially higher than that," Czeisler said. "Ten or 15% of the adult population may be at risk." As many as one-quarter of all men nearing age 60 could suffer from apnea, according to a study of Wisconsin residents.

In severe cases, sufferers become so tired that they repeatedly fall asleep during the day. The 27-year-old driver of a van carrying children to a day care center in Memphis who crashed in 2002 had repeatedly been seen falling asleep at stoplights, the NTSB learned after the accident. The 380-pound man probably suffered from apnea and fell asleep behind the wheel, the board ruled. The crash killed the driver and four children.

Czeisler was part of an expert panel that studied the issue in commercial truckers. The panel found that about half of all truckers are considered obese and, therefore, at high risk of developing apnea.

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