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Sleep Deprivation May Be Undermining Teen Health

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Essay title: Sleep Deprivation May Be Undermining Teen Health

Sleep deprivation may be undermining teen health

Lack of sufficient sleep--a rampant problem among teens--appears to put adolescents at risk for cognitive and emotional difficulties, poor school performance, accidents and psychopathology, research suggests.


Monitor staff

On any given school day, teen-agers across the nation stumble out of bed and prepare for the day. For most, the alarm clock buzzes by 6:30 a.m., a scant seven hours after they went to bed. Many students board the school bus before 7 a.m. and are in class by 7:30.

In adults, such meager sleep allowances are known to affect day-to-day functioning in myriad ways. In adolescents, who are biologically driven to sleep longer and later than adults do, the effects of insufficient sleep are likely to be even more dramatic--so much so that some sleep experts contend that the nation's early high-school start times, increasingly common, are tantamount to abuse.

"Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep," comments Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas, PhD, one of the nation's leading sleep experts.

There can be little question that sleep deprivation has negative effects on adolescents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, drowsiness and fatigue cause more than 100,000 traffic accidents each year--and young drivers are at the wheel in more than half of these crashes.

Insufficient sleep has also been shown to cause difficulties in school, including disciplinary problems, sleepiness in class and poor concentration.

"What good does it do to try to educate teen-agers so early in the morning?" asks Maas. "You can be giving the most stimulating, interesting lectures to sleep-deprived kids early in the morning or right after lunch, when they're at their sleepiest, and the overwhelming drive to sleep replaces any chance of alertness, cognition, memory or understanding."

Recent research has also revealed an association between sleep deprivation and poorer grades. In a 1998 survey of more than 3,000 high-school students, for example, psychologists Amy R. Wolfson, PhD, of the College of the Holy Cross, and Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, of Brown University Medical School, found that students who reported that they were getting C's, D's and F's in school obtained about 25 minutes less sleep and went to

bed about 40 minutes later than students who reported they were getting A's and B's.

In August, researchers at the University of Minnesota reported the results of a study of more than 7,000 high-school students whose school district had switched in 1997 from a 7:15 a.m. start time to an 8:40 a.m. start time. Compared with students whose schools maintained earlier start times, students with later starts reported getting more sleep on school nights, being less sleepy during the day, getting slightly higher grades and experiencing fewer depressive feelings and behaviors.

Also troubling are findings that adolescent sleep difficulties are often associated with psychopathologies such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

This research, combined with studies showing widespread sleep deprivation among teens, has propelled efforts to educate children and adults about the importance of a good night's sleep and to persuade schools to push back high-school starting times.

"There is substantial evidence that the lack of sleep can cause accidents, imperil students' grades and lead to or exacerbate emotional problems," says U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has introduced a bill that would provide federal grants to help school districts defray the cost of pushing back school starting times. Adjusting school schedules, Lofgren says, "could do more to improve education and reduce teen accidents and crime than many more expensive initiatives."

The research has also spurred further investigations into why teens need extra sleep, the effects of sleep deprivation on cognition, emotion regulation and psychopathology, and the long-term consequences of chronic sleep deprivation.

Dogma reversed

For decades, experts believed that people require less sleep as they move from infancy through adulthood.

It's easy to see why this belief persisted: Adolescents sleep less than they did as children, declining from an average of 10 hours a night during middle childhood to fewer than 7.5 hours by age 16. According to Wolfson and Carskadon's 1998 study, 26 percent

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