Sleep deprivation a ‘catastrophic’ health issue, expert warns

Humanity is in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” that could have a severe impact on our health unless something is done at an institutional level to change things, a leading expert in the field warned Sunday during an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian.

Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the new book Why We Sleep, explained that failing to get enough slumber each night could increase our risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other severe health issues.

Sleep deprivation, he explained during the interview, is anything less than seven hours. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 40% of all Americans slept six hours or less each night. Furthermore, the national average was just 6.8 hours per night, and 14% of people a maximum of five hours.

Similarly, the US National Institutes for Health (NIH) reported that an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic or ongoing sleep disorders – a finding which is problematic, they added, as sleep deficiency has been linked to health problem such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression and increased risk of injury.

“One in three of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed. However, the cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and a lack of focus,” the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) added. “Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions… a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.”

Why aren’t we getting enough sleep, and how do we fix the problem?

One of the main reasons for this, Walker told The Guardian, is the proliferation of technology and our tendency to use it just before bedtime. Work, commute time, anxiety and the availability of caffeine and alcohol also play key roles in this trend, he added. However, he also emphasized that people in the developed world seem to take pride in sleep deprivation.

“Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason,” he explained. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor.”

“When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: ‘I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours’ sleep,’” Walker added. “It’s embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. They’re convinced that they’re abnormal, and why wouldn’t they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful.”

Walker believes that the problem has gotten so bad that it can no longer be solved at the level of the individual: lawmakers, employers and other institutions need to take steps to ensure that men and women are getting at least the seven hours of sleep required for them to function normally.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families,” he told The Guardian, adding that sleep “needs to be prioritized, even incentivized.”


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