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Professor stumbled upon passion for sleep research

Helen Driver (Medicine) teaches and researches sleep issues at Queen's, and works in the Sleep Lab at KGH.

Helen Driver’s life revolves around sleep. The Department of Medicine professor teaches and researches sleep issues at Queen’s, and works in the Sleep Lab at Kingston General Hospital (KGH) to help people overcome their sleep problems. She was also president of the Canadian Sleep Society from 2008 to 2011.

Dr. Driver didn’t expect her career to move in this direction. While she was a PhD candidate in physiology, her initial research was on exercise and the effects of improved fitness on sleep.

“I am glad the university had a sleep lab or else I would have been in a different field. I became more fascinated with sleep than with my exercise research,” says Dr. Driver, who received her PhD from Wits University in South Africa.

Sleep therapy and research is much bigger and more important today than it was 25 years ago when Dr. Driver entered the field. Demand for therapy is increasing, thanks to Canada’s aging population and growing obesity rates – two demographics that tend to have sleep issues. There is also growing awareness among doctors and the general public that solutions exist for people who toss and turn all night.

Dr. Driver points to the large number of sleep labs that have sprung up over the years as proof of how much the field has grown. The demand is in Kingston as well – the Sleep Lab at KGH was formed in 1980 and expanded from four beds to six in 1996.

There are a lot of problems associated with a lack of sleep – it can be as simple as feeling dozy during the day or as serious as increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

“You can’t function during the day if you can’t sleep during the night,” says Dr. Driver. “I think more and more people understand the importance of getting help for sleep problems. Sleep research has changed the face of medicine because once the problem is recognized, you want to get people into therapy because good sleep helps control blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac functions, and also improves mood and performance.”