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What's Keeping America Awake? - 2002-01-02

Millions of people around the world suffer from sleep deprivation.

Dr. James Maas, professor of psychology at Cornell University in New York, is a specialist in sleep disorders. He considers sleeplessness an epidemic in the United States.

Dr. Maas said, "The average American only gets 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Sixty percent of us have insomnia, that is, we can't fall asleep when we need to. We can't maintain sleep, or we get up too early in the morning. Our major worry right now is money."

Penelope Poulou: "So, this is mainly what's keeping America awake at night: Financial concerns."

Dr. Maas: "Even more so than national security and terrorism, which of course is a major concern. Men on average now spend 22 hours of their waking life worrying about money. The average American needs as an adult, eight hours of sleep. Teenagers, little kids, need about nine and a quarter to ten."

Penelope Poulou: "How do we achieve that? It's one thing to say we have to do it. But, how do we actually achieve it?"

Dr. Maas: "We have to make sure our bedrooms are quiet, dark and cool. Take a hot shower, take a hot bath before you go to bed. When you get in bed, do something relaxing. Not watch television or playing computer games or surfing the Internet. Read for relaxation. Nothing work related. If you are having trouble going to sleep, what you should think about is grabbing an over the counter sleep aid on occasional basis, when you are having a rough time, when you are stressed out."

Penelope Poulou: "Don't people, though, get used to sleeping pills? If they start taking sleeping pills then their body gets used to it, they need more and more, is that a solution?"

Dr. Maas: "Sleeping pills used to be addictive. They are no longer addictive when used as directed. We don't like you do use them for a long period of time, it's just for transient insomnia. If you have a problem that is going to persist for more than three weeks, you've got to go see a sleep physician.

Penelope Poulou: "Is this loss of sleep permanent as we get more and more hooked with the computer, the world events, financial responsibilities, we cannot shut all these things off, I mean it's impossible."

Dr. Maas: "Well, it is quite impossible and you are absolutely right. Things are getting worse and worse, Penelope. In the last hundred years, we have reduced our total sleep by some twenty percent. And you just can't do that in a short period of time and not have deleterious consequences. We can't concentrate, we can't remember, we are not productive. We are moody, we are irritable, we are anxious, we have unexpected sleep seizures, we are drowsy. And it's going to shorten our life. Research has shown when healthy young adults sleep only four hours a night for six nights in a row, at the end of six nights, they have high blood pressure, and they have a tendency toward type two diabetes. So, we have to keep this in mind. This is a national crisis.

Extensive media campaigns to educate the American population, the worldwide population it's a world wide problem will do a lot of good. We never talk in school about sleep. If you develop good sleep habits as a youngster, they are going to stay with you for the rest of your life."

Penelope Poulou: "You said it's a world wide problem as well. Do other countries face similar problems like the United States [does]?"

Dr. Maas: "Oh! Definitely. We see in the Middle East where there is conflict. People are getting very little sleep. It's something that's hard to get used to. Any technologically advanced society is driven by media pressures, by economic pressures."

Penelope Poulou: "So, in advanced societies, like the United States, Europe, it's the financial issues that concern people and in the less developed countries are things like wars and..."

Dr. Maas: ", security."

Penelope Poulou: "Which are the most important steps that we should take to combat this problem?"

Dr. Maas: "Number one: we have to learn to value sleep, to recognize that it is a necessity. Number two: go to bed earlier, and number three: be consistent in your sleep-wake schedule.