Sleep disorders rising among younger people in China

A doctor treats a patient with a sleep disorder at Peking University Sixth Hospital in Beijing.
A doctor treats a patient with a sleep disorder at Peking University Sixth Hospital in Beijing. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - About two months ago, Mr Xing Yan started experiencing insomnia for the first time.

"It developed suddenly. I was under heavy pressure from work at the time. I could not fall asleep at all at night, and was wide awake until dawn," said the bank employee from Fushun, Liaoning province.

"I tried not to think of the things that were troubling me and forget them, but the thoughts quickly returned, making it even harder for me to fall asleep."

Before the insomnia developed, Mr Xing had regularly experienced less serious related disorders, such as taking a long time to fall asleep. He believes his tendency to worry may be the cause of his insomnia.

In addition to acute fatigue during the day, Mr Xing feels he is experiencing the physical consequences of insomnia, such as an unexplained stomachache.

"I became very frightened when I realised I could not sleep every day," said the 40-year-old, who has been admitted to Peking University Sixth Hospital in Beijing for treatment.

In an attempt to overcome his problem, Mr Xing plans to rigorously follow the advice of his doctor, such as getting up and going to bed at fixed times, and taking medication.

Mr Sun Hongqiang, director of the Sleep Medicine Centre at the hospital, said his team has seen a constant rise in the number of patients with sleeping disorders in recent years.

Despite seeing about 100 patients every day, the 12 doctors at the centre are unable to meet demand, which means many patients endure a long wait before they can consult a physician, according to Mr Sun.

"Globally, the incidence of sleep disorders is rising," he said. "In China, about 30 per cent of the population has sleep disorders, while around 10 per cent frequently experience insomnia."

It is unclear what is behind the rise in the number of people with sleep disorders, but the problem may be linked with factors such as personality, brain-related illnesses and disturbed lifestyles, he added.

NATIONWIDE PROBLEM

According to a report published last month (March) by the Chinese Sleep Research Society, 56 per cent of respondents said they slept poorly.

Sixteen per cent of respondents who had insomnia worked in information technology, making IT professionals the work group most likely to experience the problem.

They were followed by blue-collar workers, salespeople and consultants, according to the report, which was based on an online survey of 2,000 people aged 18 to 50 in 10 major cities. More than 60 per cent of respondents born after 1990 said they had problems sleeping.

While about 70 per cent said their sleep was affected by work pressures, other causes of disrupted rest included emotional issues, environmental factors, such as noise pollution, general ailments and lifestyle, such as excessive use of smartphones at night.

The most common problems included frequent dreams, light sleep and post-rest fatigue.

A report released by the society in 2016 said that 38 per cent of adults in China have experienced insomnia.

In addition, more than 300 million people had sleeping disorders, and the number was rising every year.

While some sleep disorders may simply be an unpleasant fact of life for many people, others - such as inability to fall asleep and rising excessively early or far too late - may be caused by undiagnosed physical illnesses, so people with those problems should seek medical advice, according to Mr Sun, from Peking University Sixth Hospital.

"I received a patient who had experienced insomnia for many years for reasons that had been unclear. A scan showed an abnormal area of more than 5cm in diameter in her brain, which was the major cause of her problem," he said.

The woman was later referred to the neurological department for treatment.

Sleep disorders can occur at almost any age, but in general, women are more likely to experience insomnia, and most of the patients that Mr Sun sees are aged 45 and older.

Mr Guo Xiheng, director of the Respiratory and Sleep Medicine Centre at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, said rising awareness of sleep disorders in recent years has seen a growing number of people seeking help at clinics, and the average age of patients is falling.

"In the past, most insomnia patients were middle aged or elderly, but now more young people are experiencing these problems," he said.

Compared with seniors, whose sleep patterns deteriorate as a result of advancing years, sleep disorders in young people are more likely to be the result of bad lifestyle choices, such as staying up too late and irregular sleeping schedules, he said.

The report released by the Chinese Sleep Research Society last month showed that 31 per cent of respondents said they needed more than 30 mins to fall asleep.

Nearly 60 per cent of those born after 1995 used smartphones for as long as 80 mins before going to bed for activities such as chatting and watching movies online, the report said.

Mr Sun said people with sleep disorders may be offered a range of treatments, including psychotherapy, medication and even surgery if it is deemed necessary.

"Many illnesses can cause sleeping disorders, and they should be noted during diagnosis so they can be treated," he said.

A prime treatment for insomnia is cognitive-behaviour therapy, which includes fixed times for getting up and going to bed, avoiding afternoon naps and undertaking relaxation training.

A relatively new treatment involves transcranial magnetic stimulation, where special equipment is used to produce a magnetic field around a patient's head that can alter their mood, according to Mr Sun. "Patients with mild problems may only need clinical treatment, but patients with serious disorders may need to stay in hospital for treatment for about two weeks," he said.

LACK OF FACILITIES

According to a report released last month by Ipsos, a business consultancy in Paris, about 2,400 hospitals across China operate sleep medicine clinics, but only about 220 hospitals have established departments to tackle sleep disorders.

Every month, an average of 60,000 diagnoses of sleep-related problems are made in China, mainly at clinics in large hospitals in urban areas, according to the report.

Dr Han Fang, a physician who specialises in respiratory diseases at Peking University People's Hospital, said fewer than 2 per cent of people with sleep disorders have received diagnosis and treatment as a result of the small number of doctors specialising in the field and a shortage of hospital beds.

Mr Sun, from Peking University Sixth Hospital, said sleep medicine is still not an independent discipline in China, which has hampered the education and training of specialists, and also limited their career development.

He said doctors who specialise in sleep medicine in China generally come from related backgrounds, such as respiratory medicine or neurological science.

WORKLOAD SET TO RISE

According to Dr Ye Jingying, a professor in the sleep medicine department at Beijing Tsinghua Changgung Hospital, the workload of specialists in the field is likely to rise steeply in coming years as a result of China's rapidly ageing population and the growing number of obese people.

"The development of sleep medicine needs more support from the government, such as extending the coverage of medical insurance programmes to a wider range of illnesses and treatments," she said.