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Are Sleep Problems a Growing Epidemic?

Most American teenagers are missing up to 1½ hours of sleep every school night.
New research shows that a lack of sleep is a growing health problem around the world. Sleeplessness has been linked to such chronic illnesses as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Lack of sleep is not just a problem in developed nations. It’s getting just as bad in developing countries as well.

Researchers at the University of Warwick Medical School in Coventry, England conducted the study. “Our purpose was to look at the existing data from eight different countries from both Africa and Asia. We came to estimate the prevalence of self-reported sleep problems across eight different populations. And also we tried to examine potential correlates of sleep problems in these populations,” said lead author Dr. Saverio Stranges.

The research was conducted in Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and an urban area of Kenya. The study estimates 150 million adults in developing countries are suffering from sleep-related problems.

“There is biological evidence supporting the notion that sleep deprivation, for example, may impair important physiological functions, including, for example, appetite or neuro-regenerative responses. And also have an impact on the immune system, which may actually explain the association of sleep with occurrence of many chronic diseases,” he said.

He said sleep problems are also associated with unhealthy habits, such as smoking and a poor diet. Stranges says some people can actually sleep too much, such as the elderly, making them more prone to disease.

“In Western populations there is this common belief that a 24 hour society is driving these trends in sleep problems. The exposure to the Internet is likely an important contributor to this, if you like, epidemic of sleep problems in Western countries. Also, increasing prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders,” Stranges said.

The study found that in developing countries depression and anxiety were also major factors in sleep problems. There was a higher prevalence among women than men.

Bangladesh, South Africa and Vietnam have extremely high levels of sleep problems.

“Sleep problems are becoming an important public health issue at least in some of these countries. And actually one interesting finding we had in this study was the striking variation of the prevalence of sleep problems across different populations. For example, we found that over 40 percent of people in Bangladesh may experience sleep problems, again with higher prevalence among women,” he said.

On the other hand, India and Indonesia report relatively low levels of sleep problems.

Stranges warned that sleeplessness could add to the already heavy disease burden in developing countries.

“Obviously, these are countries which are still facing the issue of infectious diseases and high mortality and morbidity from childhood-related diseases and maternal mortality. At the same time there is an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases in these populations,” he said.

He said there are no simple solutions to sleep problems, which can be tied to the effects of poverty.

The study recommends that sleep patterns be included in assessing a population’s overall health. It also says lifestyle changes should be considered before prescribing medication.

The study – Sleep problems: An Emerging Global Epidemic? – appears in the journal Sleep.