Are we really a sleepless society?
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Most of us do sleep well, despite claims that today’s ‘24/7’ life-style is creating a sleep deprived society with chronic ‘sleep debt’ that can lead to obesity and related disorders. Furthermore, that we all need 8 hours sleep a night is absurd, as not only are there natural differences in sleep between people, but merely to judge it by duration alone is short-sighted, as sleep quality is just as important, with not all of sleep being equivalent in terms of recuperation. In fact, our ‘national sleep debt’ has not worsened to any worrying extent over the last century, and our present day 7 hour average sleep has changed little over this time.
Any obesity attributed to being a ‘short sleeper’ is not really apparent until habitual sleep is down to around five hours or less. Even in this small minority of the population such a weight gain usually amounts to less than two kilograms per year, which is small considering the hundreds of hours of ‘lost sleep’ over the year, compared with much more effectively spending an extra 15 minutes in daily brisk walking and adopting a better diet. Besides, few obese adults are such short sleepers and there is little evidence that by extending their sleep by an hour or so will prevent any such weight gain. The real risk from inadequate sleep comes not from obesity etc but from excessive daytime sleepiness and a resultant accident.
Insomnia is a distressing enough complaint, and for sufferers striving towards this pointless goal of 8 hours sleep this will only worsen unwarranted fears about what will happen to one’s health if sleep falls short of this target. Although many people with what they see to be inadequate sleep feel ‘tired’ for much of the day, attributing it to lack of sleep, this is often not ‘sleepiness’ as such, but feelings of fatigue, despondency and difficulties in ‘getting going’, which contribute to worsened sleep. Here, simply focusing on this sleep itself is not the only treatment, but in dealing with the demands of wakefulness and providing for better peace of mind at bed-time.
Nowadays, we are more frank and open about our health problems, when not long ago these were private matters, kept to oneself, especially sleep problems. Although more people seem to complain about sleep today, this situation is probably not becoming worse. For example, an editorial in the British Medical Journal, from September 1894, lamented: “The subject of sleeplessness is once more under public discussion. The hurry and excitement of modern life is held to be responsible for much of the insomnia of which we hear; and most of the articles and letters are full of good advice to live more quietly and of platitudes concerning the harmfulness of rush and worry. The pity of it is that so many people are unable to follow this good advice and are obliged to lead a life of anxiety and high tension.”
One reason behind the claims and consequences of ‘inadequate’ sleep, lies with the underlying statistics, easily misinterpreted to present a situation much worse than is the case. ‘Highly statistically significant’ findings from huge databases may actually be quite small, even of minor clinical concern. That is, statistical and clinical significances are not one and the same. Caution is also needed in interpreting ‘links’ or correlations between two events, as one is not necessarily the cause of the other, but only having the same underlying cause. Thus treating one such event may well have little or no effect on the other. For example, in encouraging longer sleep in obese short sleepers as the key to weight reduction.
Much is said about today’s children not having enough sleep, and blamed on lax bed-times, excessive evening computer and mobile phone use. Plus ca change - a hundred or so years ago it was just as bad, when excessive homework was a culprit. For example, Sir James Crichton-Browne, in his 1908 presidential address to the Child Study Society bemoaned that, “the evil of insufficient sleep in children is widespread’, and previously he had testified to Parliament that, ‘I have encountered many lamentable instances of derangement of health, diseases of the brain, and even death resulting from enforced evening study in young children”. A recent (2012) report in the journal ‘Sleep’, by Lisa Matricciani and colleagues, on sleep trends over the last 100 years, covering 20 countries, and based on a total of 690,000, 5 to 18 year old children, concluded that, overall and on average, primary school children are sleeping around 30 minutes less today than they did, but with children in Australia and the UK reversing this trend in now sleeping about an hour longer than 100 years ago, whereas in mainland Europe, USA and Canada it is about one hour less, with no change for Scandinavia.
Though, maybe for today’s teenagers, the situation is indeed worse, with their greater freedom from parental control, especially in the late evening when social pressures to keep on-line and up-to date with one’s peers, does curtail their sleep.