A poll by Environics Research concluded in 2007 that nearly a full quarter of Canadians are clinically sleep deprived and are prone to drifting off in various situations throughout the day – while sitting, reading, or while in a theatre or a car, for example.
Medical research has linked clinical sleep deprivation to a litany of adverse health effects including diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, certain forms of cancer, a weakening of the immune system, difficulties with concentration, learning, and focusing, and a loss of alertness resulting in injuries and accidents.
Several years ago Dr. Peter Powles, Professor Emeritus of the Division of Respirology at McMaster University’s Department of Medicine and a specialist in sleep medicine and disorders took part in a research project that looked at the effects of sleep levels on the academic performance of high school students. The study looked at the reported sleep patterns of high school students from Hamilton and Brantford. “We were able to show that there was a correlation between the hours of sleep the students had on a regular basis and how they did academically. The fewer numbers of hours of sleep they had, the worse their performance in school was.”
The study also found that extracurricular programs like recreational sports and public arena events often had kids playing late at night and getting up very early in the morning and that, says Dr. Powles, “was certainly causing sleep deprivation.”
Later this month, 40 sleep scientists from across Canada and the United States are meeting to discuss how to translate sleep medicine research, specifically pediatric sleep, into policies that would bring an end to events that interfere with a healthy nighttime schedule for students.
During an overnight flight from Toronto to Zurich early last year, an Air Canada co-pilot awoke from a long nap as a result of prior sleep deprivation and misidentified the planet Venus as an approaching aircraft. He piloted the airliner into a sharp dive to avoid impact, forcing the captain to take control of the Boeing 767. The abrupt plummet caused injuries to 16 crew and passengers. Incidents like these are not isolated: according to recent studies, as many as 20% of all car accidents are connected to the mistakes of drowsy drivers.
The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine determined that sleep deprivation can also negatively impact the economy by means of lost productivity. The journal determined that the performance of workers with sleeping problems significantly trails that of their more well-rested counterparts, and this costs companies between $2,500 and $3,156 annually per employee amounting to billions of dollars every year. Measured on the long term, a case of the sleepy Mondays might not be as harmless as previously thought.
Since it is clear that losing sleep is a real problem, how should we manage our sleep schedules? According to specialists like Dr. Powles, regularity is key: “Giving yourself the opportunity to have a regular and appropriate time for sleep each night is important. You should be going to bed at the same time, you should be getting up at the same time, and you should be giving yourself at least eight hours in bed every night.”
Many Canadians, it seems, could well afford to take the doctor’s advice.
To those interested in further information on the topic, Dr. Powles recommended the books Sleep Thieves by Stanley Coren and The Twenty Four Hour Society by Martin Moore-Ede. In the second book, a strong case is made for the influence of sleep deprivation as a major role in both the Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez disasters.