A recent study suggests that undiagnosed sleep disorders are common among middle-aged and older adults in the US, especially among certain minorities.

Researchers studied 2,230 ethnically diverse men and women between the ages of 54 and 93 years from six US communities. Using several tests such as the polysomnography, actigraphy and validated questionnaires during a three year period, the researchers found troubled sleeping patterns played a role in health disparities in the US.

The study indicated that black, Chines and Hispanic Americans were more likely to have sleeping problems than whites, including nighttime breathing problems characteristic of sleep apnea.

Results from this study indicate that about one-third of participants had moderate or severe sleep-disordered breathing measured by polysomnography (PSG). There are several screening tests for sleep disorders and the PSG is the gold standard for testing for sleeping disorders. From the other tests, thirty-one percent had fewer than six hours of sleep, while nearly one-quarter suffered from insomnia, and 14 percent had excessive daytime sleepiness.

“As sleep apnea has been implicated as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and mortality, our findings highlight the need to consider undiagnosed sleep apnea in middle-aged and older adults, with potential value in developing strategies to screen and improve recognition in groups such as in Chinese and Hispanic populations,” said senior author Dr. Susan Redline, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

After adjusting for sex and age, the report revealed blacks to be most likely to have the shortest sleep patterns, less than six hours, and they were more likely than whites to have sleep apnea, poor sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. Hispanics and Chinese were more likely than whites to have sleep-disordered breathing and short sleep patterns, but Chinese were least likely to report having insomnia.

“Our findings underscore the very high prevalence of undiagnosed sleep disturbances in middle-aged and older adults, and identify racial/ethnic disparities that include differences in short sleep duration, sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness,” said lead author Dr. Xiaoli Chen, research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

The results suggest that different kinds of sleep problems may contribute to health disparities among US adults.  According to Dr. Chen and her colleagues, this is the first study that has linked sleep apnea, short sleep, and poor sleep, as well as subjective measures of insomnia and daytime sleepiness, to varying minorities in the U.S. population.