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If counting sheep doesn't help you sleep, or your snoring is so loud the neighbors can hear you, or if you fall asleep at work or while driving, you may need help.

Dr. Julia G. Meyer, director of the Sleep Disorder Center, said millions of people may not even be aware they have a sleep disorder and area residents may not know help is available locally."This service is underutilized," Meyer said. "Sleep disorders are very common. We need to let people know it can be a major medical problem. We need to let people know there is a treatment."

In the early 1980s, local doctor John Andrews found an interest in sleep disorders and their causes, said Meyer.

Meyer said 15 years ago sleep medicine was in its infancy. Andrews' desires to learn more about sleep disorders led him to attend lectures and plan for a future center. In 1982 the sleep lab was opened. It was the first accredited sleep lab in the state. In 1991 Meyer became the center's director when Andrews left the area.

A range of sleep disorders and disturbances affects as many and one-third of all American adults. There are 84 disorders that can harm personal health and the quality of life. They can also endanger public safety. The Department of Transportation estimates that 200,000 reported automobile accidents each year may be sleep-related.

Sleep disorders include problems falling or staying asleep, staying awake and adhering to a consistent sleep/wake schedule, along with other problems that interfere with sleep.

"The majority of patients are in their 40s and 50s," Meyer said. "Our youngest patient was 8 years old. And there have been a few over 60." Meyer said men more than women have sleep disorders and sleep apnea is more common in men, whereas insomnia is more common in women. Those usually affected are individuals active in the work force where sleeplessness has a greater impact.

Each person requires a specific amount of sleep each 24-hour period. To date, evidence suggests that most adults need a nightly average of seven hours of sleep to avoid the consequences of sleep deprivation. Many individuals require more than eight hours a night. A nine-year study found that individuals sleeping fewer than six hours each night had a 70 percent higher mortality rate compared with those who slept seven or eight hours a night.

The Sleep Disorder Center, 1055 N. 300 West, Suite 400 (Physicians Plaza), currently has one room fully operational and another nearly complete. When a patient is referred to the sleep center, two technicians monitor the patients sleep patterns.

"The patient is brought in at about 9 p.m.," said Kim Mageno, center coordinator. "We hook them up to all the monitors and have them sleep throughout the night; they are usually monitored for 8-9 hours."

From the monitors a 1,000-page polysomnogram is generated on the patient. Mageno said areas monitored include brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, air flow through the nose and mouth, chest and abdominal movement, snoring, and leg movements. The patient is also monitored by camera.

Sleep disorders are divided into groupings by possible causes. They include:

- Intrinsic sleep disorders - those that either originate or develop within the body or arise from causes within the body and include, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and forms of insomnia.

- Extrinsic sleep disorders - those that originate or develop from causes outside the body. These types of disorder range from alcohol-induced sleep disorders to disorders in sleep habits and practices.

- Circadian rhythm sleep disorders - which includes jet lag, shift-work sleep disorders and shifts in sleep phase.

- Parasomnias - clinical disorders that are not abnormalities of sleep but are undesirable physical phenomena that occur predominantly during sleep, such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), infant sleep apnea, REM behavior disorder, sleepwalking and sleep terrors.

The most serious sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea. Current estimates suggest that more than 18 million people nationwide have an apnea/hypopnea problem.

In children obstructive sleep apnea is thought to impair learning ability and to increase behavior problems.