My Q Health | More Sleep Would Make Most Americans Happier, Healthier and Safer
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More Sleep Would Make Most Americans Happier, Healthier and Safer

More Sleep Would Make Most Americans Happier, Healthier and Safer

Many people are surprised to learn that researchers have discovered a single treatment that improves memory, increases people’s ability to concentrate, strengthens the immune system and decreases people’s risk of being killed in accidents. Sound too be good to be true? It gets even better. The treatment is completely free and has no side effects. Finally, most people consider the treatment highly enjoyable. Would you try it?

You probably should. For most people, this treatment would consist of getting an extra 60-90 minutes of sleep each night. Both psychologists and psychiatrists have been arguing for years that one of the most significant and overlooked public health problems in the U.S. is that many American adults are chronically sleep deprived. That is, very few Americans regularly obtain the eight or more hours of sleep that almost all adults need each night. The consequences of this chronic sleep deprivation can be disastrous. Laboratory experiments on the effects of sleep deprivation have shown that failing to get enough sleep dramatically impairs memory and concentration while increasing levels of stress hormones and disrupting the body’s normal metabolism. Research outside the laboratory further suggests that long-term sleep deprivation puts people at greater risk of motor vehicle accidents and disease.

This is important because research shows that many people are carrying a heavy “sleep debt” that they have built up from weeks, months or even years of inadequate sleep. In experiments on sleep debt, researchers pay healthy volunteers to stay in bed for at least 14 hours a day for a week or more. Most people, given this opportunity, sleep about 12 hours a day for several days, sometimes longer — and then they settle into sleeping seven to nine hours per night. As sleep researcher William Dement, PhD, put it, “this means…that millions of us are living a less than optimal life and performing at a less than optimal level, impaired by an amount of sleep debt that we’re not even aware we carry.”

But is carrying a sleep debt really so harmful? Experiments by psychologist David Dinges, PhD, and others have shown that the answer is yes. Dinges and colleagues recruited healthy young volunteers to continuously in a sleep laboratory for 10-20 days. By randomly assigning the volunteers to receive different amounts and patterns of sleep over time, by controlling their access to stimulants such as caffeine, and by constantly monitoring their physiological states (to document the amount of sleep they were actually getting), Dinges learned that people who get fewer than eight hours of sleep per night show pronounced cognitive and physiological deficits, including memory impairments, a reduced ability to make decisions and dramatic lapses in attention.

To read full findings and story go to the American Psychological Association.


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