Narcolepsy is a life-long problem, but it is not progressive. Symptoms may even lessen over time, but they never completely disappear. In older adults, cataplexy may lessen over time, but sleep disturbances at night may worsen.
Risk for Accidents
Perhaps the most serious consequence of narcolepsy is the high risk for accidents. In one survey, almost 75% of patients with narcolepsy reported falling asleep while driving, and 56% reported nearly having accidents. Other common narcolepsy-related accidents include burns from touching hot objects, cuts from sharp objects, and breaking things.
Effects on Mental Functioning
Some studies report that people with narcolepsy have problems with memory, thinking, and attention. Whether these problems are more likely to be due to tiredness and episodes of sleepiness than to brain abnormalities is not clear.
Emotional and Social Difficulties
People with narcolepsy suffer emotional and social difficulties caused by their uncontrollable sleep episodes and cataplexy. Studies have reported rates of depression in people with narcolepsy ranging from 30 - 57%. (In the general population, the prevalence of depression is 8%.) Studies have shown severe emotional and social dysfunction in all areas, including work, relationships, and leisure activities. Men with narcolepsy frequently suffer from sexual problems. Some experts believe that the psychological and social effects are more serious than those caused by epilepsy (for which narcolepsy can be mistaken).
Accompanying Physical Problems
Obesity. People with narcolepsy are at high risk for obesity compared to the general population. This could be a consequence of low activity level, but research also indicates that deficiencies in the brain peptide hypocretin may play a role in both narcolepsy and eating behaviors, which could increase the risk for obesity.
Review Date: 07/04/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.