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Sleepy today? So are a third of Americans, two new CDC surveys find

More than a third of us in the U.S. are getting less than the generally recommended 7 hours of sleep each night — a factor that is having a negative impact on our ability to do our jobs, drive safely and even enjoy our free time, according to two new health surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Many people who responded to the surveys reported that their lack of sleep was causing them problems during the day, especially difficulty with concentration (23.2 percent of those surveyed) and memory (18.2 percent).

Such problems can lead to lost work productivity and sometimes more serious consequences, particularly for people in such professions as child care, lifeguarding and the operation of heavy equipment, noted the authors of one of the surveys.

But sleepiness is interfering with our non-work activities as well. An inability to “work on hobbies” was the third biggest sleep-related problem (behind difficulty concentrating and remembering) cited by survey respondents (13.3 percent).

Disturbing findings
“The finding that 35 percent of people get inadequate sleep is disturbing,” said Dr. Conrad Iber, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center at Hennepin County Medical Center, in a phone interview.

Particularly troubling, said Iber, was the almost 5 percent of respondents to one of the surveys who acknowledged that they had nodded off while driving during the previous 30 days. (By my quick calculation, that comes out to be about 12 million drivers falling asleep at the wheel at least once a month.)

Iber suspects those numbers are probably low. “It’s really important to remember that there is often substantial underreporting of that issue [falling asleep while driving],” he said. “People are a little afraid to report something like that because even admitting it to yourself is a hard thing to do.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, inadequate sleep is responsible for an estimated 1,550 driving-related deaths and 40,000 nonfatal driving-related injuries each year in the U.S.

Another survey result that Iber found troubling was the high percentage (46.4 percent) of sleep deprivation among people who report being unable to work.

“Some of those people may have co-existing medical problems,” said Iber, “but they may also be under substantial stress because of their inability to work. Since the survey predated the recession, [those numbers] might be even worse now.”

Married people were also slightly less likely (35.1 percent) than never-married people (37.9 percent) or divorced, widowed or separated people (39.1 percent) to report not getting enough sleep (although married people did report significantly more snoring problems).

How Minnesotans sleep
One of the surveys collected its data from 12 states, including Minnesota. According to that data, we have the least sleepy residents in the country.

Still, our numbers aren’t anything to celebrate late into the night.

Among the 5,519 Minnesotans (of the 77,571 total respondents) who answered questions for the survey

  • 27.9 percent (compared to 35.3 percent average for all 12 states) said they get less than 7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period
  • 33.7 percent (versus 37.9 percent) said they had unintentially fallen asleep during the day at least once within the previous 30 days, and
  • 3.1 percent (versus 4.7 percent) said they had done so while driving.

“If you want to get good sleep, you should live in Minnesota, have a regular job and get married,” quipped Iber. “We’re so far north and the sun goes down so early, there’s not much to do but go to bed.”

Iber, of course, said there’s another possible reason for Minnesota’s healthier sleep patterns: “Our health care ranks among the best,” he said. As a result, he added, “Minnesota has tended to rank high in health-related habits, and this may just track with that.”

Need to be taken seriously
Sleep deprivation is an important health issue — and not only because of the safety risks it poses for people engaged in jobs where falling asleep puts them or someone else in danger.

As the authors of one of the CDC surveys notes, “[c]hronic sleep deprivation also has a cumulative effect on mental and physical well-being and can exacerbate chronic diseases.”

Yet many people fail to understand how important a good night’s sleep is to their health.

“The public, in general, doesn’t believe it,” said Iber. “It’s often considered a humorous problem, not a serious one.”

Iber points to advertising — for casinos and energy drinks, for example — as how our society often directly promotes the avoidance of sleep. “In a way, those ads are very ethically irresponsible because they’re encouraging impaired people on the road,” he said.

Employers also often fail to take sleep deprivation seriously. “I’m very concerned about our shiftwork population,” said Iber. “I don’t think they’re very well supported. We have people driving trucks, flying planes, and policemen with guns in their holsters. If they’re working 24/7, then some of them are going to be sleep-deprived and impaired.”

The CDC authors call for more public education and awareness about the need for sleep — and for better training of physicians and other healthcare professionals in sleep medicine.

“It’s really a public health issue,” said Iber. “I think we can start right now teaching within schools the value of sleep. It’s harder to teach adults. They have entrenched habits. But if we’re going to change public health, then we really need to start with children.”

The two surveys were published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  You can read them here and here. For more information about how to improve your sleep habits, you may want to start with the National Institutes of Health’s National Center on Sleep Disorders. You’ll find an interactive “Test Your Sleep I.Q” quiz there.

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