Estimated prevalence of sleep problems in adults with learning disabilities varies widely says systematic review


Life expectancy in people with learning disabilities has increased over recent years, and sleep problems become more common in people who are advancing in years. Sleep problems are also generally more common in people with learning disabilities than those without.

The authors of this systematic review were interested to look at the way in which sleep problems were defined in the research literature for this group of people and to consider what the research tells us about prevalence, and associated factors and treatment of sleep problems in this population.

They searched electronic databases for studies published between 1990 and 2011, including all empirical studies covering sleep problems in adults with learning disabilities. Following an evaluation of study quality, they were able to include 50 studies in the review. Of these, they judged one to be of high quality, 14 as well conducted, 14 well conducted with high risk of bias, and 21 as non-analytical.

Estimated prevalence rates of sleep problems in adults with learning disabilities varied widely in the studies, from 8.5% to 34.1%. They found a prevalence rate of 9.2% for significant sleep problems.

They found the following factors associated with sleep problems

  • challenging behaviour;
  • respiratory disease;
  • visual impairment;
  • psychiatric conditions;
  • using psychotropic, antiepileptic and/or antidepressant medication.

Interestingly, there was little in the literature that focused specifically on older adults with learning disabilities.

In relation to treatment outcomes, they found two studies whose findings suggested that non-pharmaceutical interventions may be beneficial.

They conclude that the evidence based for prevalence, associated factors and treatment of sleep problems in adults and older people with learning disabilities has mainly used subjectively derived data. With non uniform definitions to describe sleep problems are not uniform and with associations described mainly as correlations. They recommend further research with more objective measurement and the use of multivariate analysis of data.

Prevalence, associated factors and treatment of sleep problems in adults with intellectual disability: A systematic review, van de Wouw E et al., in  Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33, 4, 1310–1332



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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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