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Sleepwalking is More Prevalent than We Thought

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Sleepwalking is More Prevalent than We Thought

Do you - or someone in your family - sleepwalk at night? Almost 30 percent of Americans have at some point in their lives (and the numbers are likely similar in Canada).

If you’ve ever woken up to something going bump in the night, you might have a sleepwalker in your house. But if you wake up one morning to find your kitchen cupboards completely reorganized, it might just be you. It seems many more people sleepwalk than was previously thought.

What is sleepwalking exactly?

Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is described as a disorder that occurs when people walk or do another activity while they are asleep. Though it can happen at any age, it is more common among children between 5 and 12 years old. It also seems to run in families.

Almost 30 percent have sleepwalked

The only study done in the US on the prevalence of sleepwalking was published 30 years ago. The rate reported in that study was 2.5 percent. A new study, published in the May 15 issue of Neurology, reported that 3.6 percent of US adults reported sleepwalking in the previous year. A larger number—29.2 percent—reported sleepwalking at least once in their lifetime.

How did they find out?

The trouble with research on sleepwalking is that gathering statistics about it is tricky. If you live alone you might never know that you sleepwalk (unless, of course, you do some pretty remarkable things at night) since many people don’t recall their episodes. And others have brief, but quiet, episodes that don’t awaken other members of the household.

The researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine surveyed more than 19,000 study participants and asked them questions about their mental health, medical history, and medication use as well as about sleepwalking.

Their phone surveys asked specific questions about the frequency and duration of sleepwalking episodes and about any potentially dangerous behaviours during their sleepwalking. In addition, participants were asked if they had a family history of sleepwalking.

The researchers found that 29.2 percent had sleepwalked during their lifetimes, while 3.6 percent had at least one episode in the previous year. People with depression were 3.5 times more likely to sleepwalk, and alcoholics and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder were also significantly more likely to have episodes. They also found the medications used to treat some mental health disorders may have some effect.

Other results

Some of the other interesting findings from the sleepwalking survey:

  • Just over 80 percent of those who have sleepwalked reported they’ve done so for more than five years.
  • Sleepwalking was not associated with gender and seemed to decrease with age.
  • Nearly one-third had a family history of sleepwalking.
  • People using over-the-counter sleeping pills had a higher likelihood of reporting sleepwalking episodes at least two times per month.

Symptoms of sleepwalking

According the US National Institutes of Health some of the indicators that someone is sleepwalking include:

  • acting confused or disoriented when they wake up
  • having a blank look on their face
  • opening their eyes during sleep
  • not remembering the sleepwalking episode when they wake up
  • performing detailed activity of any type during sleep
  • rarely, showing aggressive behaviour when they are woken up by someone else
  • sitting up and appearing awake during sleep
  • talking in sleep and saying things that do not make sense
  • walking during sleep
  • talking in sleep and saying things that do not make sense

Play it safe

Though most people who sleepwalk don’t need any medical treatment, there is a small chance the nocturnal wandering might put them at risk for falling or bashing into things (that bump in the night). So if you know someone in your household is prone to sleepwalking you might want to try moving potential obstacles (electrical cords, for example) and blocking off stairways. And if you don’t want your cupboards reorganized, lock the kitchen door!

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