In September last year a NJ Transit train slammed into the Hoboken station, killing one person and injuring more than 100. Afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board found the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and probably dozed off.
That’s probably also what happened when a New York Metro-North Railroad commuter train sped off the tracks in 2013, killing four people, the NTSB found.
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted. Mostly it’s due to throat muscles failing to keep the airway open, which is called obstructive sleep apnea. Less commonly, the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep.
Sleep apnea can make sleep less effective and lower blood oxygen levels, possibly leading to high blood pressure, heart disease, and mood and memory problems. It also increases the risk of drowsy driving and such.
In response to the NTSB finding, NJ Transit screened its 373 train engineers for sleep apnea and confirmed its presence in at least 44 of them. They’re getting treatment — typically a device that keeps the airway open with air pressure during sleep — to ensure their apnea doesn’t impair their job performance and lives.
The percentage of engineers with sleep apnea may seem high, but it is actually low compared to the general population. The American Sleep Association says 24 to 31 percent of men have obstructive sleep apnea, and 9 to 21 percent of women.
This common health problem often goes undetected and untreated because it happens while sleeping and people don’t hear the obvious signs such as breathing pauses, snorts and gasping for air. Chronic snoring is a strong indicator of sleep apnea.
There are a wide range of daytime symptoms, according to the National Sleep Foundation, including difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties, and falling asleep while at work, on the phone or driving.
Sleep apnea afflicts all ages and makes children more likely to be hyperactive and have difficulty paying attention. It also may be associated with delayed growth and cardiovascular problems.
People who suspect sleep apnea should make a record of their sleep, fatigue levels throughout the day and other symptoms, and take it to their doctor. Diagnosis is often made with an overnight stay at a sleep center — there are several in South Jersey — where sleep can be monitored and treatment can begin immediately.
Many people in South Jersey don’t get enough sleep, so keeping it effective is important. The CDC Behavioral Risk Assessment System estimates 35 percent of Americans get insufficient sleep, but the numbers of the sleep deprived in Atlantic (38 percent), Cumberland (39 percent) and Ocean (39 percent) are among the highest in New Jersey (37 percent).
Better awareness of and treatment for sleep apnea in everyone would be beneficial. The screening and treatment of people in jobs with critical awareness responsibilities — drivers, pilots, machinery operators and such — should be mandatory. More tragic accidents aren’t necessary to see the clear risk and the way to address it.