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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Will the sleep studies ever awaken us?

By Dick Hirsch

I should be sleeping right now, yet here I remain, occasionally yawning but still able to sit, stand and stroll over to the window when necessary, while attempting to slip my mind into gear for the work ahead.

I know I should be sleeping at this very moment. You know it, too, if you are reading any of those recurring stories, often headlined “Study reveals adults not getting enough sleep,” or, those that are the product of more thoughtful copy editors “Not getting 40 winks? You’re being shortchanged.”

Each time I see a report on a sleep study the findings are the same: most people aren’t getting their share. That being the case, I have never understood why universities and public agencies insist on the tiresome habit of studying sleep patterns when they already know what the results are going to be.

The mattress manufacturers and retailers obviously know, too, or else why would they be among the major local advertisers in every community of any size? Those ads keep reminding viewers and readers of the importance of premium quality bedding. “You spend at least a third of your life in bed,” some of them claim. If only that were true.

In my own case, I am firmly convinced that I should be making up for all the sleep I lost years ago. I started losing sleep while in college, when it was a badge of honor to be able to nod off in class after either cramming for a mid-term exam or else just hanging around, staying up late because it was considered the most efficient use of the time available. It was illogical, but that didn’t matter. Few lights went out early. I can still remember the shock I felt the first time I heard somebody singing in the shower at 3:15 in the morning.

My situation was compounded by occupational requirements. I spent years as a newspaper reporter, when the race was still on to get the story into print before the opposition. That entailed frequently having late deadlines, with some shifts starting around 6:00 PM, and finishing sometime on the north side of 2:30 AM. One cannot readily drift off to slumber land while working such a schedule. Their stories may cite different causes, but many people I know lost sleep in the early years and have been unable to get even.

Years ago I assigned a magazine story to a writer, asking for a report on where the members of the so-called hip “in-crowd” were spending their evenings, and at what hour those evenings ended. The focus was on week nights, not weekends. The story was a big hit, reporting on certain places in our supposedly quiet city where there were people still waiting to get inside around the 4 AM closing. They were people who would be going to their workplaces the following morning, usually by 9 AM or earlier.

“How do they manage to do that?” I asked.

“Simple,” I was told. “They go home from work, have a snack, go to bed, take a nap for a couple of hours, get up, shower, get dressed and go out for the evening.”

That was news to me, but it was a knowing explanation of a lifestyle with which I was totally unfamiliar. I recently had the opportunity to observe the weekend nocturnal schedule of a university student during the summer vacation. Out he ventured around 11 PM. “I won’t wait up,” I said, in jest, and he smiled, knowingly. I suppose he was back by 3 AM because one night the light was off when I happened to awaken.

Going “out” to somewhere or nowhere isn’t the only late night attraction. There are distractions right at home, the compelling diversions provided by the Internet, cable TV and video games. Those are all useful technologies when properly employed, but they can also be tantalizing time wasters, especially during the quiet hours. As a result, it is simple to conclude there are far more excuses for not getting enough sleep.

Although a few experts say somewhat less is acceptable, eight hours continues to be the nominal standard and a recent survey reported by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) disclosed shortages. The survey found that 10 percent of adults studied complained of not getting enough rest or sleep every day for the most recent month. The CDC estimates that some 50 to 70 million people suffer from chronic sleep loss.

Yawn. Tell me something I don’t already know.



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