The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

It’s tuesday night, and Billy, a high schooler, is doing his homework. Billy usually has an astronomical amount of homework since his coursework is rigorous, but this night is different. Billy realizes he has a very important test tomorrow and winces at the thought.

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Soon after he finishes his homework it is midnight, and he begins to study for his test. After studying for a good two hours, Billy gets into bed at around 2 am and ends up falling asleep half an hour later. He wakes up at 6 am the next morning and feels more fatigued than usual. Later that day, Billy flunks his test. He could’ve done exceedingly better by changing one aspect of the previous night: the time he went to bed. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the Sleep Research Society (SRS), adults should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep. Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, incoming AASM president and Consensus Panel Moderator for AASM, stated more than a third of the population is not getting enough sleep, so the focus needs to be on achieving the recommended minimum hours of nightly sleep (AASM). Sleep deprivation is a widely overlooked problem that needs to be given more awareness and must be addressed. This problem affects many aspects of human life such as human performance and mental health.

To begin, a victim to the enigma of sleep deprivation is human performance. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), sleep deprivation impairs attention, short-term and long-term memory, the ability to make decisions, and many more cognitive functions. The impairment of these functions could lead to enormous sometimes catastrophic problems, especially in the field of medicine. The Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine conducted a study to test the cognitive ability of house staff and medical students after one night of on-call duty. They administered two cognitive function tests to the participants; the tests were administered before and after on-call duty. The results showed an overall decrease in score of three and a half points when the tests were taken after on-call duty. Sleep deprivation affects a human’s ability to think as well as their reaction times causing them to be less sharp. In a study done by the Department of Aerospace Physiology at the Fourth Military Medical University in Xi’an China, eight healthy, male college students were instructed to stay awake for twenty six continuous hours. During the time the participants were awake, they were asked to take nine different tests at different times of the day. At the end of the study, the researchers found that sleep deprivation increased the time it took to respond to a question, as well as the errors in parts of the test that required manual tracking. Sleep deprivation is responsible for jeopardizing people’s safety by impairing their attentiveness and alertness. According to Yale University School of Medicine in a survey of 1554 emergency medicine residents, 8% reported having MVAs and 58% reported being involved in near-miss MVAs. Most of the MVAs and near-miss MVAs followed the night shift (Yale). The abbreviation MVA stands for motor vehicle accident; this means that the collision and near-miss rate is higher after working a night shift. Marcus CL and Loughlin GM of John Hopkins University conducted a study where they distributed a questionnaire to seventy pediatric housestaff (interns, residents,fellows,etc.) and eighty five faculty members in a hospital. The housestaff were on call overnight while the faculty members rarely got called at night. CL and GM concluded that housestaff had fallen asleep while driving and while stopped at a red light significantly more than faculty members.

In addition to human performance, Sleep deprivation affects another important aspect of a human being: mental health. According to Stanford Medicine, Sleep is believed to help regulate emotions, and its deprivation is an underlying component of many mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. In the Department of Behavioral Biology at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), a study was conducted in which 25 healthy and well rested individuals were administered a Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI): a test that assesses a person’s personality (ScienceDirect). After the PAI was administered, the participants stayed awake for 56 consecutive hours and then retook the PAI test (ScienceDirect). The researchers found that the psychopathology, mental disorder, scores increased from the first PAI to the second (ScienceDirect). Some of the psychopathology found were anxiety, depression, and paranoia (ScienceDirect). Sleep deprivation plays a big role in suicidal thinking and impulsive behavior. According to the work of Rebecca Bernert, PhD, director of the Suicide Prevention Research Lab at Stanford University, sleep deprivation makes people more sensitive to negative emotional information that they would usually not care about if they had enough sleep. This could cause people to make negative impulsive decisions such as to self harm or commit suicide. Shashank Joshi, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, stated When you throw into the mix sleep deprivation, which can also be disinhibiting, mood problems and the normal impulsivity of adolescence, then you have a potentially dangerous situation referring to negative decisions made by adolescence. Sleep deprivation affects our behavior and how we interpret the surrounding world. A study was conducted by Harvard scientists in which they used a group of students who got a normal amount of sleep and a group who had been awake for 35 hours (Sleep advisor). The scientists showed both groups a series of images where some were neutral and some were violent. In the sleep deprived group, they found that the amygdala of the brain, responsible for emotions, was sending messages to the area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response (sleep advisor). In the normal group, the amygdala was sending messages to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and decision making (sleep advisor). This means that when humans get a normal amount of sleep they are able to distinguish the difference between real and sensed threats as opposed to interpreting more of their surroundings as threats like the sleep deprived group (sleep advisor).

Although the opposing side may argue that people could just go to sleep earlier or manage their time better, the solution is more complicated than that. William Dement, the founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, and Mary Carskadon, PhD, conducted a study on a group of children from ages ten to twelve on their sleeping habits. They brought the children to a sleeping camp where they monitored their brain waves while they slept each night. They concluded that as the teens got older, they did not need as much sleep. In other words, the older the teens got, the longer it took them to fall asleep. This is due to the circadian rhythm, biological clock, of the sleep-wake cycle being shifted to a later time. In addition, as high schoolers get older and take harder classes, they recieve more homework and have to spend time they could be sleeping doing homework.

With all that’s been said, sleep deprivation is a major problem that needs to be recognized worldwide and needs to be solved. Let’s hope that we can lower the number of Billy’s among us in the future.

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