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The Problem With Sleep

Written by Chris Juhnke

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    The process of sleep is of the utmost importance to the safety and health of many in our society, but often its significance is not acknowledged. Although most people have heard stories of sleep deprivation leading to tragedies such as car accidents, sleep still holds a fairly low rank in the priorities of society. In fact, sleep is often portrayed as an unnecessary luxury that can be forgone at the expense of a night spent studying for a final, writing a paper, or out with friends. On top of this, sleep is often thought of as something for the weak or a waste of time. However, these ideas are misconceptions and sleep deprivation affects our society more than is realized.

    One important concept to address when talking about sleep deprivation in society is that of “sleep debt.” Sleep debt revolves around the idea that each person has a certain sleep need that they must obtain each night to maintain optimal functionality. When the person does not obtain this amount, around 8 hours for the average individual, missed stores up as sleep debt. This sleep debt does not go away after a day or even a week, but must be cancelled out by extra sleep. Therefore, a person who sleeps one hour less than his or her sleep need a night for a week will have a sleep debt of 7 hours. Clearly sleep debt can build very quickly, not just from the obvious all-nighter, and when it has accumulated, negative effects begin to surface.

    According to Dr. William Dement, M.D, the negative effects associated with sleep deprivation and the accumulation of sleep debt range from drowsiness to impairment of memory to sudden brief periods of sleep called “microsleeps.” All of these effects can have potentially disastrous consequences if they occur frequently due to a large sleep debt. The probability of a catastrophe increases further when certain activities such as driving are introduced into the equation. This is particularly important for college students who often report the most sleep loss in the week before finals. Staying up all night to study increases the students sleep debt, and these same students end up driving home the next day after having stayed up all night celebrating the end of finals. In fact, drowsy drivers cause about 100,000 car accidents a year, leading to numerous injuries and fatalities that could have been avoided with adequate knowledge about sleep.

    While sleep deprivation affects a considerable amount of high school and college students, it can also affect adults. In fact, depending on occupation, sleep deprived adults can create dangerous situations on the job as well as driving or doing other activities requiring significant concentration. A Better Sleep Council survey taken in 1994 reported that 19% of the 1000 person sample of adults had dozed off at work. While this may not be important for someone with a regular desk job, for others whose work requires a high level of concentration, such as truck drivers or air traffic controllers, dozing off during work can have serious consequences.

    Sleep debt is a serious issue, but it is not without a solution. While there is no magical way to eliminate sleep debt other than getting more sleep, if a period of sleep deprivation is approaching, it is possible to prepare for it. The first step in preparing for a shortage of sleep is to reduce accumulated sleep debt by napping or getting extra sleep. Napping is one of the most effective tools in reducing sleep debt and, although it sometimes carries a stigma in our productive, work-a-holic society, should be embraced. Once built up sleep debt is reduced, it is easier to face a period of sleep deprivation without becoming overly affected, as long as the sleep debt is subsequently reduced after the deadline or all-nighter. Another key part of the prevention of sleep related tragedies is self-awareness. If one becomes drowsy while in the midst of a task such as driving, it is necessary to acknowledge the feelings of tiredness and pull off the road to get some rest. By exiting the dangerous situation of driving while sleepy, it is possible to avoid accidents and refresh alertness with a nap so safe driving can continue after only a short break.

    The idea of sleep debt and its consequences are extremely relevant to society. This process can affect everyone and no one is immune from its effects. A build up of sleep debt is dangerous and the resulting drowsiness and lapses in attention can cause serious tragedies. Additionally, every day performance can be affected by sleep debt. A decrease in concentration, constant fatigue and impaired memory all lead to a drop in performance that affects students and adults alike. Assuming much of society has a built up sleep debt, it is logical to think that society could be performing on a much higher level as a whole if sleep debt was reduced. The first step in reducing sleep debt and solving many of these sleep related problems is knowledge about them, which can then be shared and applied to daily life, in order to create a happier, healthier, less sleep-deprived society. Our society’s only problem with sleep is that we’re not getting enough of it!

Dement, William. The Stanford Sleep Book. 2006.


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