Study objectives: To document the monthly changes in sleep/insomnia status over a 12-month period; to determine the optimal time intervals to reliably capture new incident cases and recurrent episodes of insomnia and the likelihood of its persistence over time.
Design: Participants were 100 adults (mean age = 49.9 years; 66% women) randomly selected from a larger population-based sample enrolled in a longitudinal study of the natural history of insomnia. They completed 12 monthly telephone interviews assessing insomnia, use of sleep aids, stressful life events, and physical and mental health problems in the previous month. A total of 1,125 interviews of a potential 1,200 were completed. Based on data collected at each assessment, participants were classified into one of three subgroups: good sleepers, insomnia symptoms, and insomnia syndrome.
Results: At baseline, 42 participants were classified as good sleepers, 34 met criteria for insomnia symptoms, and 24 for an insomnia syndrome. There were significant fluctuations of insomnia over time, with 66% of the participants changing sleep status at least once over the 12 monthly assessments (51.5% for good sleepers, 59.5% for insomnia syndrome, and 93.4% for insomnia symptoms). Changes of status were more frequent among individuals with insomnia symptoms at baseline (mean = 3.46, SD = 2.36) than among those initially classified as good sleepers (mean = 2.12, SD = 2.70). Among the subgroup with insomnia symptoms at baseline, 88.3% reported improved sleep (i.e., became good sleepers) at least once over the 12 monthly assessments compared to 27.7% whose sleep worsened (i.e., met criteria for an insomnia syndrome) during the same period. Among individuals classified as good sleepers at baseline, risks of developing insomnia symptoms and syndrome over the subsequent months were, respectively, 48.6% and 14.5%. Monthly assessment over an interval of 6 months was found most reliable to estimate incidence rates, while an interval of 3 months proved the most reliable for defining chronic insomnia.
Conclusions: Monthly assessment of insomnia and sleep patterns revealed significant variability over the course of a 12-month period. These findings highlight the importance for future epidemiological studies of conducting repeated assessment at shorter than the typical yearly interval in order to reliably capture the natural course of insomnia over time.
Keywords: Insomnia; course; epidemiology; incidence; natural history; persistence.