Public Health

The Sleepy American

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Sleep deprivation has been linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents and medical errors. It has also been linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, anxiety, reduced problem-solving capacity, memory lapses, an increased risk for the common cold and even premature death.

Recent data published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, while not cutting new ground in this area, has helped to quantify the extent of the problem among Americans, as well as its impact on car crashes. The news is not good.

According to the CDC report, between 50 and 70 million US adults suffer from chronic sleep deprivation and related disorders. Those estimates came from a study which found that 35% the nearly 75,000 adult participants in a 12-state sleep study reported getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night. Nearly 40% of these people claimed to doze off inadvertently at least once a day.

Furthermore, people who averaged less than 7 hours were more likely to nod-off while driving a car. Overall, nearly 5% of respondents said they had fallen asleep while driving during the last year. According to the CDC, this phenomenon causes 1,550 highway deaths and 40,000 injuries per year.

The numbers are probably higher than this, according to Allan Pack, who directs the Center for Sleep at University of Pennsylvania. “Most of us believe that there are a lot more fall asleep crashes than reported,” he said in an interview. “It’s probably not reported accurately because a number of states don’t even having a ‘falling asleep while driving’ tick in the box when reporting a car crash.”

“I’m not sure that people understand the biology of all this,” Pack added. “I think people believe that if they cut back on their sleep there is no real consequence. Everyone knows the dangers of alcohol, but I don’t think people understand the dangers of drowsy driving.”

Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can be caused by bona fide sleep disorders like chronic insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, anxiety, depression or sleep apnea. They can also be caused by alcohol and stimulants, as all too many of us are aware.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per day, and school-age children probably need 10-11 hours of sleep per day. The CDC study tells us that 7-9 hours of sleep is not just a luxury; it’s a necessity.

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