In the news > Sleep disorders costing Australia $5bn a year
By Ashley Hall
February 2, 2012

New research has found that sleep disorders cost the Australian economy more than $5 billion a year in health care and indirect costs. On top of that, Deloitte Access Economics estimates people with sleep disorders suffer a reduction in life quality equivalent to more than $31 billion a year.

The figures account for lost productivity, absenteeism and poor work performance attributed to a lack of sleep. The Sleep Health Foundation says it is time preventative health campaigns focussed on the need for a good night’s sleep, as well as a good diet and exercise.

Stewart Brash, a 75-year-old retired orthopaedic surgeon, is undergoing treatment for sleep apnoea, or suspension of respiration. “My wife has been complaining about my snoring for some time and then I developed atrial fibrillation,” he said, referring to an irregularity in the heartbeat. One of the problems with atrial fibrillation is that it is made worse or initiated by sleep apnoea.

“So, I then went to the sleep clinic and I have bought a CPAP machine – a Continuous Positive Air Pressure machine – and I’ve been very happy with that machine”, Stewart affirms. The machine is designed to blow air into the nose throughout the night.

“I use it for about seven hours per night and I sleep quieter. My wife is happy and I have noticed that I awake refreshed and I feel better,” he said. “My blood pressure has dropped a bit, since I’ve been using the machine.”

Mr Brash says he has never detected an obvious slump in his performance during the day because of his sleep disorder, although he is feeling much more energetic now that he is being treated.


But many people do notice a dramatic effect.

More than 1.5 million adult Australians, or 9% population, suffer from sleep disorders, including sleep apnoea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome. “What these conditions have in common is that they disrupt sleep and cause daytime symptoms,” said Professor David Hillman, the director of the West Australian Sleep Disorders Research Institute. “The daytime symptoms are those ones of sleep disruption, tiredness, lethargy, and really sub-optimal brain function.”

Professor Hillman is also chairman of the Sleep Health Foundation, which asked Deloitte Access Economics to quantify the economic impact of sleep disorders. “About 5 per cent of heart disease and high blood pressure is attributable to sleep disorders and depression is another consequence, around about 10 per cent of depression is attributable to sleep disorders,” Professor Hillman said.

“And then of course workplace accidents and productivity losses and for that matter losses of life quality. So I looked at all those consequences, worked out the proportion which was attributable to sleep disorders and then looked at the dollar costs that flowed from that.”

Eight hours

The researchers found the direct health costs of the disorders amount to about $800 million a year, while the other costs, like productivity losses and workplace accidents, total about $4.3 billion – that is $5.1 billion in total.

“When you first hear a figure like that it sounds like a lot, but when one thinks about the effects of sleep loss on your own function and then applies all the multipliers to it – these people have daily problems with sleep loss and the high proportion that exists in the community – I don’t think it’s surprising at all really,” Professor Hillman said.

The Sleep Health Foundation is keen to press the message that a small increase in funding for the treatment of sleep disorders could bring about a big net benefit for the economy. Professor Hillman points out that while current preventative health messages focus mostly on diet and exercise, he would like to see future campaigns include the need for a good night’s sleep as well.

“It’s quite a common perception in the community that sleep’s an inconvenience that gets in the way of social life, family life, work and I have dealt with people who actually believe they can train themselves to sleep less,” he said. “That’s simply not possible; this is a physiological need that has to be met and if you don’t meet it you can very readily measure the effects on brain function.”

For those who are uncertain, a good night’s sleep for the average adult amounts to at least eight hours.