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Sleep Health: A New Topic of Importance

December 2015

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Adequate sleep and the treatment of sleep disorders will improve a person’s health, productivity, wellness, quality of life, and safety on the roads, at home, and in the workplace. Up until the last few years, sleep research was not related to many chronic illnesses and quality of life. Today, poor sleep health is a common problem with 25 percent of U.S. adults reporting insufficient sleep 15 out of every 30 days.

“We now know that lack of sleep, insomnia, is likely to put you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure,” says Alon Avidan, MD, MPH, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Sleep research also links poor Zzz's with kidney disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Cancer and Alzheimer’s disease may also be tied to lack of sleep.

Sleep, like nutrition and physical activity, is a critical factor in determining our physical well-being. Sleep is a basic requirement for healthy infants, children, adolescents and adults. Sleep loss and untreated sleep disorders influence basic patterns of behavior that negatively affect family health and interpersonal relationships. Fatigue and sleepiness can reduce productivity and increase the chance for mishaps such as motor vehicle or industrial accidents.

Adequate sleep helps to: (1) Fight off infection, (2) Support the metabolism of sugar to prevent diabetes, (3) Allow youth to perform well in school, and (4) Allow adults to work effectively and safely. Sleep time and duration affect a number of endocrine, metabolic, and neurological functions that are critical to a person’s health. If left untreated, sleep disorders and chronic short sleep may lead to an increased risk of: heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, injury on-the-job and respiratory diseases.

Among older adults, the cognitive and medical consequences of untreated sleep disorders decrease health-related quality of life and contribute to functional limitations and loss of independence. They are also associated with an increased risk of death from any cause. With youth, inadequate sleep affects school grades and relationships with family and friends.

The odds of being a short sleeper (less than 6 hours a night) in the U.S. have increased significantly over the past 30 years. Competition between sleep schedules, employment, and lifestyle is a recent trend. Intermittent sleep disturbances due to lifestyle choices often cause temporary fatigue, disorientation, and decreased alertness. Sleep health is important for individuals with chronic disabilities and disorders such as arthritis, kidney disease, pain, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and depression.

One of the newest issues today is sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), which includes sleep apnea. SDB is characterized by intermittent airway obstruction or pauses in breathing. People with untreated SDB have 2 to 4 times the risk of heart attack and stroke. Obesity is a significant risk factor for SDB, and weight loss is associated with a decrease in SDB severity.

The bottom line is, make sure you get enough sleep every day. A good night's sleep of 7 to 8 hours each night will keep your mind and body healthy.