Sleep insufficiency is a universal problem, affecting millions of people each year in every corner of the globe. It is prevalent across all ages, genders, socio-economic groups and ethnicities. Many organizations consider it to be a public health epidemic with weighty economic costs.
The significance of the problem is often overlooked by the general public, with attitudes ranging from indifference to the glorification of sleep deprivation. It isn’t uncommon for a medical resident or a new mother to brush off concerns of not getting a good night’s rest, as it is equally common for pop culture to glamorize all-nighters. As a result, sleep hygiene is not regularly discussed and often goes under-reported by patients.
But the health consequences are real and should not be ignored. Deficient sleep is inextricably linked with a wide range of negative outcomes that affect a person’s physical and mental well-being and performance. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics has shown that decreased sleep duration has been associated with seven out of the 15 top causes of mortality across the US. These include cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, accidents, diabetes, hypertension and septicemia. Clearly, the impact of insufficient sleep has sweeping effects across global societies and constitutes a major public health concern.
The duration of sleep varies among people based on age. According to a state-based study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 65% of adults reported the necessary number of hours per night. The survey revealed that over 80 million American adults were sleeping under the recommended seven hours each day.
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The same pattern is pervasive among adolescents and young adults, and the consequences can be devastating. These years are especially formative, with the brain and body undergoing remarkable development. Although sleep is essential, research reveals that many teens and young adults get far less of it than their bodies require. As a result, mental health issues, a decline in academic performance, accidents and injuries, poor judgment, risk-taking and obesity are rampant among this demographic.
It’s no coincidence that long-term sleep deprivation has been historically used as a form of torture, resulting in both negative physical and mental side effects. While chronic sleep insufficiency does not equate with institutionalized torture, it does result in a significant burden to public health, the labor force and academic performance.
This begs the question: What are we doing as a global society to address this widespread and pervasive public health epidemic? How can changes in individual behavior, actions by employers and public policy measures be implemented in a meaningful way to make long-term, substantial change?
In the workplace, lack of sleep can put employees and other people at risk, especially if, for example, the duties include patient care, transportation or law enforcement. Sleep hygiene needs to be an integral part of every workplace program. Employers can utilize the CDC’s Workplace Health Resource Center, which contains education, training and assessment tools, in addition to strategies to modify the workplace to increase alertness, incorporate dedicated breaks and spot warning signs of fatigue and exhaustion.
According to statistics from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, up to two-thirds of patients have not discussed their issues around sleep with their doctors, while a significant percentage of health care providers fail to ask. Sleep habits should be routinely discussed at yearly physicals and histories, and patients should be given ample tools to manage sleep difficulties. These must include more than just a prescription.
Colleges and universities should take measures to curtail the unnecessary glamorization of sleep deprivation. Students largely ignore sleep requirements as academic, social and extra-curricular pressures get in the way. Students of all ages are spending an inordinate amount of time on social media, and a study from the National Sleep Foundation revealed that nighttime social media use negatively correlates with a good night’s sleep.
Schools and universities alike need to address these concerns that are so pervasive on school grounds across the globe. The inclusion of sleep education in health classes should be universal, as should education materials that include guidelines as to when to turn off electronic devices before bed.
The last 16 months have resulted in global upheaval, leaving policymakers struggling to catch their breath. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing quarantine forced many of us to work from home. In doing so, it inadvertently helped many to reestablish a work-life balance that was off-kilter for a very long time. As we reexamine our world and our lives, a better balance for our collective health must include the prioritization of sleep.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.