Harvard University’s Introduction To Sleep And The Dangers Of Ignoring Sleep.

Sleep is important for all of us, so Harvard University created a site devoted entirely to an Introduction to Sleep. Their aim is spelt out in the web address: www.understandingsleep.org .

It is well worth going on the site- it compresses information to a few minutes at most.  It lets you hear and see some of the world’s leading researchers give you an overview of an important topic- and they have to do it quickly.  Many of the videos are about a minute long.

The issues of sleep are all encapsulated in the overview, aptly named Why Sleep Matters (6:13) .  The fundamental point of the film is that we are ignoring the need to sleep.  Our modern society and pressures of work are not only stressful, they stop us sleeping properly.

Some of the site makes sombre reading.  Don’t miss Sleep and Health- a mere 36 seconds long, and a powerful reminder of the dangers to your health of not managing your sleep. Dr Orfeu Buxton reminds us how animals and humans share dependency on sleep as a vital part of life.  The last few words are a bit frightening.  What he doesn’t tell you is that it takes 3 weeks to kill a mouse by starvation.  And 3 weeks to kill a mouse by sleep deprivation.

The management of sleep by our bodies is interesting too.  The sleep clocks and how they work together is a one minute explanation.  The two mechanisms have different impacts on our alertness.  Here is normal sleep:

And here the consequences of staying up too long (or getting up too early).  The impact of this- the cause of sleep deprivation- is dangerous.  In fact, it is life threatening in more ways than one.

The site doesn’t hold back when there are clear health threats.

Your local hospital for instance- how long are the shifts trainee doctors have?  Certainly, in the US, too many hours.  And one consequence is:

“According to the Institutes of Medicine, over one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year result from preventable medical errors, and many of these may be the result of insufficient sleep”

So how important is sleep in these errors?

Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce the number of medical errors by as much as 36 percent by limiting an individual doctor’s work shifts to 16 hours”

Can we please have this limit in Europe / everywhere?

The consequences of sleep deprivation seep into our lives (and deaths) in many ways. One section of the site goes through a list of illnesses ending with lower life expectancy.  There are other dangers we can avoid, like driving cars when we’re drunk – or, what is just as bad- when we’re drowsy:

“The Institute of Medicine estimates—based on recent high quality naturalistic and epidemiologic studies—that drowsy driving is responsible for fully 20 percent of all motor vehicle crashes. That would mean that drowsy driving causes approximately 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries, and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S.”

Taking care of sleep in our lives is the solution.   Sleep researchers are discovering how sleep is vital for learning and memory, and how lack of sleep impacts our health, safety, and longevity.

For adolescents we need to change the timing for schools and universities to fit in with their sleep patterns.  Our cognitive function is better when our sleep is better (see the four factors film).  Like the Brookings report on the importance of changing school times, on the Harvard website they let a  student have his say. Like Matt, Alicia Kiattinat, 19 (at the University of Texas) and other campaigners in the field are having real success : http://t.co/rHpmUXKkMm .

It is time to help adolescents get the sleep they need.  It is time for all of us to pay more attention to the hidden third of our lives.