Sleep Thieves

Our society has launched frontal assaults on alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes; now it’s time to slay the sleepies, contends neuropsychology professor Stanley Coren in this comprehensive book. It seems that sleep, or rather our lack of it, causes Americans a few problems – an estimated 25,000 deaths, 2.5 million disabling injuries, and $56 billion in related costs each year. Armed with numbers like these, Coren aims to lift sleep deprivation to the top of our public health agenda.

Sleep Thieves is essentially a treatise on sleep – what it is, what it does, how it works, and, most importantly, why we should take it more seriously. Sleep, implies Coren, is the Rodney Dangerfield of public health. It just doesn’t get any respect. The dawn of shift work a century ago, brought on by invention of the light bulb and the conveyor belt, hastened our societal sacrifice of sleep for productivity. Unfortunately, this attitude conflicts with 4 million years of human evolution that, like it or not, has established a physiological need for sleep.

The troublesome result, Coren explains, is that most of us are functioning with a serious sleep debt, the debilitating physical effects of accumulated sleep loss over time. Just one hour less sleep each night for a week can cause nose dives in mood, thinking ability, attention, memory, and logical reasoning. To support this and other assertions, he combines fairly dry but informative research findings with engaging interviews and personal anecdotes. In addition to sleep debt, he examines the evolution and physiology of sleep, dreaming, sleep-wake cycles, insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea, substances that affect sleep, the link between sleep and health, and the performance of professionals susceptible to sleep debt, such as shift workers, truck drivers, doctors, and pilots.

While the book contains no astounding revelations, it does contain fun, enlightening sleep questionnaires and a potpourri of tantalizing tidbits that encourage page turns, such as:

Average nightly sleep duration in America is 7 1/2 hours; for optimal functioning we need closer to 10.
You can be chronically sleep deprived and not know it.
For help sleeping, two aspirin may be more effective than non-prescription sleep medication.
Insomnia is not a clinical condition in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying health problem.
13 million Americans take prescription sleep medications, yet these same medications are a major cause of insomnia.

The explosion of the Challenger, the radiation leak at Chernobyl, and the oil spill by the Exxon Valdez all have one thing in common – sleep-deprived employees.

Coren culminates his call for a more rested continent with his own, somewhat anticlimactic, research finding that in 1991 and 1992 the hour of sleep Canadians lost during the change to daylight-saving time lead to significant increases in traffic accidents. This effect “indicates a sleep debt so high that just a single hour added to it causes people to die,” he states. In support of his theory, the hour of sleep Canadians subsequently reclaimed during their return to standard time in the fall actually reduced traffic accidents.

“Sixty minutes more in bed seems like a small investment,” Coren concludes, “but these data make it clear that in our current sleep-debt-ridden state, it does pay large dividends.” So the next time you struggle to wake up for work, one option may be to lie back and sleep another hour…then bring your boss a copy of Sleep Thieves.

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