U.S. Racking Up Huge "Sleep Debt"

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 24, 2005

In her fast-paced job as a reporter for the Orange County Register, a southern California newspaper, Gwendolyn Driscoll says she "blasts through the day."

Arriving home late in the evening, she has little time for housework or catching up on her reading. Even less for sleep. Most nights, she gets about six and a half hours of shuteye.

"I could definitely do with another hour," said the 35-year-old Driscoll. "But sleep just isn't a priority."

Perhaps it should be.

Sleep experts say the average adult requires seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Anything less may harm their health. Sleep deprivation could affect mental alertness, impair the immune system, and even increase the risk for diseases like diabetes.

"Sleep is just as important to our overall health as are exercise and a healthy diet," said Carl Hunt, the director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Maryland. The center is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Sleep is a biological need, much like food and water. If totally deprived of shut-eye, humans ultimately perish. Yet millions of Americans are increasingly skimping on their sleep. Today, Americans on average sleep one hour less per night than they did 20 to 30 years go.

"The dependency on caffeine and the whole Starbucks culture is certainly one proof that our society is sleepier than ever before," said William Dement, a pioneering sleep researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

The trend, researchers say, is partly due to the country's 24/7 culture, with its ever escalating expectations of around-the-clock services, information, and entertainment.

"All of these lifestyle changes are directly impacting not only the number of hours Americans sleep each day, but also when during the 24 hours that sleep occurs," Hunt said.

Studies show that one in five adults suffer from daytime sleepiness. Among those aged 18 to 34, 50 percent say that daytime sleepiness interferes with their daily work.

The costs are enormous: 15 billion dollars (U.S.) in health care expenses and as much as 50 billion dollars in lost productivity in the United States alone, according to one estimate.

Continued on Next Page >>


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