Texas Medical Center

America is Suffering a Sleep Deprivation Epidemic



Are you getting enough sleep? Apparently a lot of people aren’t, and the results are sometimes dangerous. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, more than a third of drivers report having fallen asleep behind the wheel at some point in their lives, and more than one in 10 has fallen asleep behind the wheel in the past year.

The Centers for Disease Control says America is suffering a sleep deprivation epidemic. With so many home- and work-related obligations and an abundance of entertainment options – including all-night television and computers – most of us are not getting our recommended seven to nine hours of sleep daily.

The concerns are so great for drivers that the government has stepped in to limit the number of hours a long-haul truck driver can be behind the wheel.

Effective July 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began requiring trucking companies to restrict their drivers to a 70-hour week on the road, down from the previous limit of 82 hours a week. Both the trucking companies and the drivers argue that reduced hours mean reduced pay, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has a statistic up its sleeve that is not arguable: More than 3,800 people were killed in 2012 in large-truck related accidents. While the department doesn’t have precise statistics on fatigue-related crashes, it cited one study showing that roughly 13 percent of large-truck crashes involve a sleep-deprived driver.

Dr. Aparajitha Verma, director of the Houston Methodist Hospital Comprehensive Sleep Disorders Program, says not only are we not getting enough sleep, but few of us are getting the recommended seven to eight hours of “quality sleep.” Sleep quality can be impacted, particularly as we age, by such factors as obstructed sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

We may think we are getting enough sleep, but when you factor in sleep disruptions – waking up to go to the bathroom, getting up to put the dog outside – we actually may only be getting two to three hours of quality sleep. Bottom line – if you don’t wake up refreshed and ready to tackle a new day, Verma says, you probably are not getting enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation manifests itself in several ways. The CDC says a large number of job-related and driving-related accidents are attributed to a lack of sleep. A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that many drivers, particularly those who operate at night, average less than six hours of sleep.

Verma also cites a number of health-related issues, such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and obesity as the product of sleep deprivation.

Of course, losing sleep is not a choice for those with insomnia. In some cases, medication may offer a quick fix, but Verma says insomnia lasting more than a couple of months needs the attention of a health care professional.

Several institutions within the Texas Medical Center offer sleep studies to determine whether a patient’s sleep problems are clinical in nature. Once physical issues are ruled out, psychological issues should be examined. Anxiety and depression often are factors in not being able to sleep.

To get a better night’s sleep, Verma warns people to not buy into these popular sleep myths:

• As you get older, you need less sleep. Wrong. Verma reminds us that quality of sleep can be compromised as we age, so we should shoot for eight hours of sleep to ensure we get six to seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.

• A nightcap will help you sleep. Wrong again. An alcoholic beverage right before bedtime is never a good idea. It won’t help to achieve quality sleep, and it will probably add to your waistline over time.

• Taking a nap is a bad idea unless you are a child. Verma says short naps lasting 20 to 30 minutes can help refresh you in the afternoon. But if you find yourself sleeping an hour or so, you need to look at whether your nighttime sleep is as good as it should be.

• Sleeping pills are helpful. Sure, they are, but not over the long haul. Some are addictive and none were designed to be used for the long term. Find out why you can’t sleep and, with the help of your doctor, find out how to turn a deprivation nightmare into restful and refreshing sleep.