Many Americans are not getting enough sleep, and the consequences can be serious.
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than a third of respondents said they'd fallen asleep by accident in the last month. Nearly 5 percent have nodded off while driving. Thirty-five percent are getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night.
Dr. Jon Hallberg spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Tuesday about the medical benefits of sleep. Hallberg is a physician in family medicine at the University of Minnesota and director of the Mill City Clinic in Minneapolis.
Tom Crann: Do these findings surprise you?
Dr. Jon Hallberg: Some of the findings surprise me. I'm not surprised that a third of people are not getting enough sleep, that they're getting less than seven hours. In fact, I thought maybe the number would be higher than that based on the people that I see.
But I mean it's kind of scary to think that one in 20 people have fallen asleep while driving a car.
Crann: In the last month.
Hallberg: In the last month, and a third of people have fallen asleep when they didn't really intend to. So that means they're falling asleep at their desks. They're falling asleep at work. This is serious stuff.
Crann: There was another survey by the National Sleep Foundation this week, and it shows that logging on, whether you're on your Smart phone, your iPad, or the laptop, in the evening until you fall asleep can adversely affect your sleep. Do you think that's a factor here?
Hallberg: It might be, and again, I just haven't been asking these questions, but I think that so many of us within the last hour before we go to sleep are plugged in and your mind is engaged. It's not passive like watching television. These are active things, and it's pretty hard to turn that off.
Crann: How much sleep do we really need? What's the right answer to that question?
Hallberg: Oh, I'm a little embarrassed about this because I know I don't get enough sleep, but all the sleep foundations and whatnot think that it should be between 7 and 9 hours for most adults, and something like 10 to 11 to 12 hours for kids. And any parents out there are probably scratching their heads a little bit ... It's very hard in my household to get that much sleep. So it's pretty clear that a large number of us are not getting enough sleep.
Crann: What are the medical benefits? What happens to you beneficially when you actually sleep?
Hallberg: Well, I don't know that we really know the answer to that.
Crann: Really, after all this time?
Hallberg: That's right ... A third of our lives we're asleep, and there are sleep centers all over the place. The bottom line is I don't think we really know why, that essential question of why do we need sleep. I think that the idea that it's, that we need to reboot every night, we need to sort of shut down, stop the higher functioning. It's pretty clear that the body heals itself to some extent. There's a certain cellular tissue repair that's going on. We need that because if we don't get sleep, we feel less well in many ways.
Crann: What are the long-term consequences, on the other side of the coin, of not getting enough sleep night after night?
Hallberg: I think that people have problems concentrating. They have problems staying awake, of course. There's some concern that it can play into things like depression and anxiety. And then physiologically, I think that we know it affects blood pressure and just all kinds of normal functions that go on in the body, and if you're not getting enough sleep, people tend to hurt more. They ache more. They may have digestive issues. I mean there's all kinds of ways that it manifests.
Crann: How are you handling this issue of sleep in the clinic? Is it something you regularly ask about or screen for?
Hallberg: You know, we ask so many questions, and we screen for so many things, but, "Do you get enough sleep?" is not one of the questions that I typically ask. And I have to say that after seeing this, and this is coming from the Centers for Disease Control, I think it's going to be one of the things I'm more intent on asking about.
Right now, when people come in it's almost always one of two things. They're having a hard time falling asleep, so it's an insomnia-related question, and lots and lots of people have insomnia of one form or another. Or it's sleep apnea. Their bed partner can't sleep because they stop breathing and they're snoring so loud that it's really disrupting their night.
Crann: So this is not a frivolous issue?
Hallberg: It's not, and it's funny. I mean we're so concerned about so many things in clinic, diet, smoking, exercise, that I think sleep is often sort of assumed that we get enough, that it's something we don't really have to talk about, and it's hard to talk about because it's just one more thing to add to the long list and growing list of things that we need to address.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)