01-28-2004, 10:32 PM
Fat drivers 'worse' than drinkers
Cause: sleep apnoea
FAT motorists may be even more dangerous than those who have been drinking, a sleep expert has warned.
Dr Lee Dowson said growing obesity was fuelling a rise in the disorder sleep apnoea.
The disorder causes sufferers to wake as many as 1000 times a night and is blamed for daytime drowsiness.
Dr Dowson says it is probably already causing many road deaths, with truck drivers likely to be affected.
Thousands of sufferers do not realise they have the condition, while others are afraid to seek treatment in case they lose their licences.
The overweight are more prone to sleep apnoea, where muscles in the throat relax, obstructing the airways.
Sufferers need to wake for a split second before dropping back to sleep, a pattern repeated throughout the night.
That means they do not get the deep, refreshing sleep everyone needs.
Dr Dowson, who runs a sleep clinic at Wolverhampton's New Cross Hospital, England, said: "They are dangerous on the road.
"If you put them on a driving simulator, they do worse than people who are intoxicated with alcohol."
Dr Dowson said risk factors included being male and having a thick neck - fat there puts extra pressure on the airways.
"If you think what your average heavy goods vehicle driver looks like, you can imagine this is a massive problem," he said.
"Sleep apnoea probably accounts for many, many road deaths. Most motorway accidents involve lorries and most lorry drivers are at risk."
Research in the United States found the reaction times of drivers with sleep disorders were equal to or worse than those given enough vodka to take them over the drink-driving limit.
Dr Dowson said those with the disorder were also often heavy snorers.
More than one in 50 is a sufferer - two-thirds of them men - but few realise it.
GPs often misdiagnose it as exhaustion and overwork, but it can be treated successfully with a mask through which air is pumped at night.
The British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association said many people were afraid to speak to their GP because doctors had to tell the driver licensing agency, which could withdraw their licence.
But once a person has been properly treated they can lead a normal, healthy life.