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There’s a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic,’ and it’s cutting lives short, expert says

People who don’t get enough sleep are less health and have less energy, and there’s a strong correlation between sleep and life expectancy, according to a leading sleep scientist.
People who don’t get enough sleep are less health and have less energy, and there’s a strong correlation between sleep and life expectancy, according to a leading sleep scientist. Creative Commons

Yawning may be a symptom of a host of problems more severe than a bad night’s sleep.

That’s because losing shut-eye doesn’t just make it hard to get through the day without a nap — it can also heighten the risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and dementia, potentially shortening our lives, according to a top sleep expert.

Those who struggle to get rest at night can at least take comfort knowing that, for better or worse, they have a whole lot of company: A “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” plagues modern society, according to Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California Berkeley.

One in three Americans doesn’t get enough sleep, according to a study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. South Dakota was the most well-rested state in the study, while Hawaii had the lowest healthy sleeping rate in the country, with only 56 percent of residents getting more than seven hours a night, according to the New York Times.

“As a nation, we are not getting enough sleep,” Dr. Wayne Giles, director of the C.D.C.’s Division of Population Health, said last year. “Lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time each night, rising at the same time each morning and turning off or removing televisions, computers, mobile devices from the bedroom, can help people get the healthy sleep they need.”

Part of the problem is cultural, Walker says.

“We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor,” Walker told The Guardian in an interview about “Why We Sleep,” his new book.

But that culture glorifying little sleep isn’t new: World leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher even bragged about getting away with very little sleep, the Guardian reports.

“When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: ‘I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours’ sleep,’” Walker said. “It’s embarrassing to say it in public.”

A big reason sleep is so interrupted in the modern world is technology. With phones, televisions, computers begging for attention at all times, it can be hard to unplug.

Electricity itself is a huge problem, too, Walker adds.

“We electrified the night,” Walker told the Guardian. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep.”

Walker cited one study showing that those 45 and over who sleep less than 6 hours per night are 200 percent more likely to experience heart attacks or strokes than those who got 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night.

Other scientific studies demonstrated sleep loss raises the risk of Alzheimer's and weight gain.

Walker suggests that people should use alarms to make sure they go to sleep on time, just like people use alarms to get up in the morning.

Just don’t hit the snooze button, though — Walker told The independent earlier this month that hitting snooze is a “cardiovascular assault” on the body.

“If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time,” Walker told The Independent.

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