Adult Sleepwalking More Common Than Thought, Study

By Amir Khan on May 15, 2012 2:16 PM EDT

Sleeping
Late night shift workers are more likely to have heart issues or a stroke compared to their coworkers who work the day shift, according to a new study, published in the British Medical Journal (Photo: Reuters / Luke Macgregor)

Sleepwalking is far more common in adults than scientists previously thought, according to a new study. Data on sleepwalking is sparse, and until now, the only other national study was conducted over 30 years ago. In that study, researchers found that a little over 3 percent of people sleepwalk. However, in the most recent study, researchers found that as many as 30 percent of adults have sleepwalked at least once in their lives.

"It's probably more common than we realize, which doesn't surprise me," Dr. Tucker Woodson, chief of the division of sleep medicine at Medical College of Wisconsin, who wasn't involved in the study, told HealthDay. "As clinicians we often see the cases in which it's a problem, so if the occasional sleepwalking episode is not causing any problems, it tends not to be something people seek medical attention for."

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Sleepwalking typically occurs early in the night, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sleepwalkers will sit up and act as though they are awake. Some walk around, get dressed eat and even drive a car. Sleepwalking episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to over 30 minutes, and contrary to popular belief, it is not dangerous to wake a sleepwalker.

Researchers questioned 19,000 people about their sleep habits and found that 30 percent of them sleepwalked at least once in their life and that one-third of them did so more than once a month.

"When you have one episode of sleepwalking per month at minimum, you are disturbed by the disorder, no doubt," Dr. Maurice Ohayon, study author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, told HealthDay. "More than once a month is a lot of episodes in a year. It could be harmful for them. So it could be a big accident coming, but happily that's very rare."

While sleepwalking itself isn't dangerous, people are frequently injured during the act when they trip and lose their balance, according to the NIH.

"Safety measures may be needed to prevent injury," the NIH says on its website. "This may include moving objects such as electrical cords or furniture to reduce the chances of tripping and falling. You may need to block off stairways with a gate."

Sleepwalking is much more common in children than in adults, according to the study, and while the exact cause is unknown, fatigue, lack of sleep and anxiety are all linked to sleepwalking. In addition, alcohol and sedative use and certain mental conditions, such as depression, are also linked to sleepwalking.

"Depression and OCD are often associated with sleep disorders," Ohayon told Fox News. "You find disturbed sleep often with depression. With depression, there is more nocturnal awakening and more ruminating during the night, which in turn increases sleepwalking risk."

People with depression were 3.5 times more likely to sleepwalk, according to the study. People on SSRIs, a common antidepressant, also had a higher risk.

People with sleep apnea, a condition that causes sleepers to stop breathing and gasp for air, is also linked to sleepwalking -- so closely in fact that researchers say anybody who has one likely has the other.

"Sleepwalking and sleep apnea are badly associated, which means when you identify sleepwalking you must look absolutely at the possibility of sleep apnea," Ohayon told Fox News. "Sleep apnea has very bad consequences such as hypertension and less oxygen in the brain over a long period of time, which can cause a lot of problems in itself."

The journal Neurology published the study on Tuesday.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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