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Running on empty: Americans don’t get enough sleep

Aug 18 2016
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Sleep may be the new productivity tool. More sleep can help kids of all ages get better grades, focus better in and out of class and even maintain a healthy weight. Adult productivity may also get more of a boost from sleep than a drug, diet or exercise regimen.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers get between eight and 10 hours of sleep each night. Yet the Sleep Foundation reported in its 2014 Sleep in America Poll that 58 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds usually sleep fewer than seven hours each day. Overall, less than half of American children get at least nine of hours each day.

Younger people of all ages need more sleep than adults to aid in physical and mental development, according to Edmund Pezalla, M.D., M.P.H., senior medical director at Aetna. Pezalla says sleep needs vary depending on the stage of each individual’s development.

So, what’s the right amount of sleep? The National Sleep Foundation has revised its recommendations for some age groups. The biggest changes are for infants:

Newborns (0-3 months ): 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)

Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)

Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)

School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)

Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)

Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours (new age category)

Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours (no change from prior recommendations)

Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours (new age category)

In the 2014 Sleep in America Poll, the foundation reported that while 90 percent of parents place “great value” on sleep, one quarter of those same parents reported that their children regularly get an hour less than what’s recommended.

Sleep deprivation among young adults can be as harmful as alcohol and drug abuse, particularly when it contributes to anxiety and depression. Sleep experts say teens need between 8 to 10 hours a night.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that sleep deprivation has the same effect on students’ grades as binge drinking and drug use, particularly for college students.

Sleep deprivation and stress make a bad combination

For teens and young adults, lack of sleep combined with daily stress can lead to anxiety or depression. Over time, this can lead to more significant problems like General Anxiety Disorder,  a condition characterized by excessive, persistent and unrealistic worry.

Hyong Un, M.D., chief psychiatric officer of Aetna Behavioral Health, suggests that young adults create a sleep routine that supports their physical and mental need for sleep. “When we sleep, our body and our mind has time to recover from the stress of the day,” said Un. “If we continually rob ourselves of this recovery time, we eventually diminish our ability to handle day-to-day challenges.”

Early school start times for middle and high schools can contribute to a lack of sleep among teenagers, according to a new report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC found that 83 percent of schools start before 8:30 a.m. and had a combined average start time of 8:03 a.m. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Insufficient sleep can lead to poor grades in school, general inattention and can contribute to weight gain, according to the CDC. To combat early school start times, Pezalla suggests getting children to bed earlier. “If children are sleepy in school, they aren’t necessarily learning as well as they could be,” he says.

Also, people who sleep less than six hours are more likely to catch a cold, according to a new study from the SLEEP journal.

As the start of school approaches, families and college-bound students may want to consider aligning “sleep hygiene” practices to help everyone get the sleep they need. It can be as easy as starting a bed-time routine.

Some sleep hygiene tips include turning off any lights and not looking at any media screens for the 20- to- 30 minutes before sleep. “Reading a book is different than screen time. It’s the interactivity of today’s gadgets that make it a problem for people to eventually fall asleep,” said Pezalla.

For children and young adults, Pezalla suggests a routine that includes brushing their teeth, washing up, laying out things for the next morning, or any tasks that may be helpful to an individual or family to get them ready for sleep and prepare for the next day. “Having a sleep routine that includes preparing for the next day creates less anxiety in the morning,” he says. The family doctor can also offer good advice, particularly when it comes to younger kids and bedtime routines.

Young adults pressed for time may want to consider how much time social media consumes every day, Un said. “If you think you don’t have time to get more sleep, try keeping track of the time you spend on your mobile device.” He also recommends avoiding electronic light for a half an hour before sleep time and letting the sun shine in your room in the morning to help your natural sleep clock.

Sleep distractions are a huge factor at any age, particularly with all the technology in our lives. Pezalla observes, “Even though the lights are out, we may be looking at mobile screens, computers or televisions – still connecting to the world outside. We have to make enough room in our lives for sleep.”

More: Aetna offers employees an incentive to get more sleep.