America’s Growing Epidemic: Sleep Deprivation

November 8th, 2017

It seems like there is never enough time in the day to do everything. Schedules are busier, lives are busier, and as a result, Americans are living by schedules that are not reflective of healthy sleep patterns. The consequence of a hectic lifestyle is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider a sleep crisis – an epidemic affecting the public health of 1 in 3 adults in the United States.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Recent reports have shown that nearly 30% of American adults are getting 6 hours or less of sleep per night, and only 31% of high school students are getting 8 hours or more. The effects of sleep deprivation are widespread and are having a dramatic impact on public health. In fact, it has been shown that getting 5 hours of sleep or fewer for at least 4 nights in a row affects cognitive performance the same way a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .06 (approximately 3 drinks) would. The price we’re paying for not prioritizing sleep is a noticeable depletion of our mental and physical health – and at times, even our safety.

A study by Barnes and Drake (2015) linked sleep deprivation to higher incidences of obesity and frequent feelings of distress and negative moods. At work, sleep-deprived employees have been shown to be less engaged, participate more often in unethical behaviors, and generally perform more poorly than well-rested counterparts. Additionally, sleep-deprived people are less creative and less effective when making decisions. Lack of sleep has been linked to a higher likelihood of being involved in car crashes, as well as a higher incidence of coronary heart disease. Sleeplessness has also been shown to lead to a greater risk of injury or the raised possibility of being in a motor vehicle crash, especially in the springtime when Daylight Saving Time goes into effect. In short, not getting enough sleep has drastic effects on an individual’s ability to think clearly and for the body to function optimally, both leading to a myriad of consequences over time.

How Did This Happen?

One cause of the overall sleeplessness issue is that the typical American schedule is not conducive to maintaining healthy sleep habits. We stay up late catching up on work or socializing and we get up early for work or to get the kids ready for school. Unfortunately, these hectic schedules start early with our school schedules. Teenage years are marked by a shift in circadian rhythms (natural sleep cycles) toward higher function at night and less function in the early morning, yet many high school days start at or before 8:00 a.m.

Another cause of sleep deprivation for adults is shift work – a situation where employees may have to work at night or other “off-hour” times. Then there are the true sleep disorders. It is estimated that 30% of American men and 12% of American women between the ages of 30 and 70, have an obstructive breathing disorder like sleep apnea, and 90% of those sufferers are undiagnosed.

More recently, the prevalence of personal electronic devices and our incessant use of them close to bedtime has also been shown to disrupt sleep. Personal electronics often use blue light to affect the brightness of the screens on our smartphones, tablets, and TVs. Exposure to bright light, particularly blue light, at night has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns.

Lastly, there is a lack of access to education and available treatment aids for sleep issues. Many sleep-sufferers think, “well, this is just how it is,” deprioritizing sleep issues as unsolvable and therefore not seeking diagnosis and treatment for their problems. Note: This is why SleepScore Labs was founded. Using Sleepscore or SleepScore Max helps identify sleep issues and provides suggestions so that your doctor can properly help.

What Can We Do About It?

Education about the importance of sleep is a first step, followed by making sure we’re prioritizing the importance of getting sufficient, qualitative sleep. Proper sleep is as essential to good health as eating well and getting exercise. The CDC also made a few recommendations:

  • Establish later start times for middle and high schools
  • Impose stronger regulations on work hours
  • Eliminate daylight savings time
  • Educate the public about sleep health, and how our digital devices can negatively impact sleep patterns
  • Improve access to at-home sleep diagnostic tools
Barnes, Christopher M.; Drake, Christoper L. “Prioritizing Sleep Health: Public Health Policy Recommendations,” Perspectives on Psychological Science. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691615598509.
“Blood Alcohol Level Chart: Are You Too Drunk to Legally Drive?” Driving Laws, published by NOLO. http://dui.drivinglaws.org/drink-table.php.
“Increased Prevalence of Sleep-Disordered Breathing in Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology. https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/177/9/1006/145450.
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