What’s the sleepiest group of patients sleep doctors are likely to see? Adolescents, at least according to researchers at the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Health & Safety meeting in Washington DC this weekend.
This fact will probably come as no surprise to most parents of teens, who know what it’s like to try to wrest a kid out of bed for a 6 a.m. school bus or who routinely wring their hands while teens sleep in past noon on weekends.
And yet most parents don’t realize how truly sleep-deprived their children are, or how serious the longterm health consequences of sleep deprivation may be.
“There’s a big disconnect between what parents think and what’s actually going on out there,” said Dr. Judith Owens, MD, MPH, Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. She cited a 2006 NSF poll showing that while 56% of teens report getting less sleep than they need, 71% of parents think their teens get enough sleep most nights.
According to the National Sleep Foundation and most sleep research, the average teenager needs about 9 hours of sleep per night. This means that to wake at 6 a.m, the average teenager should be sound asleep by about 9 p.m. at the latest.
“There are some very serious consequences to this epidemic of insufficient sleep in our teenage population,” said Dr. Owens, after explaining that a sleep debt one night may result in a temporary benefit such as a higher grade on a test the next day from that extra studying. However, like all debts, she cautioned, this one “needs to be paid off eventually.”
Health consequences of adolescent sleepiness (<8 hours of sleep per night) are daunting and include:
- Cigarette, marijuana, and alcohol use
- Stimulant abuse (with caffeine as the “gateway drug”)
- Depression and increased suicide risk
- Physical fights
- Physical inactivity
- Increased obesity risk
- Increased rates of drowsy driving and car crashes
There’s also growing evidence that inadequate sleep weakens the immune system and predisposes teens to longterm health consequences including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even a shortened life expectancy.
Does sleeping in on the weekends help? Not really, according to Dr. Owens. For one thing, the kids are still not getting enough sleep during the week when they need it to optimize school performance. And, worse, shifting sleep schedules so drastically puts our kids into a “perpetual state of jet lag” that can persist all week.
Explaining that it takes about one day for real-life travelers to adjust to each time zone crossed, Dr. Owens said that this common teenage lifestyle is akin to “flying from Washington to LA and back every weekend.”
That pay-off comes at the cost of our children’s overall health and well-being. We can’t control every aspect of modern life that contributes to this sleep debt, but we can certainly control some of them, including teaching our children the importance of sleep and good sleep “hygiene habits,” and working for school start times in sync with their sleep needs.
The latter means starting high school later than 7:17 a.m. Developmental psychologists and sleep researchers have known for decades that adolescents need to be asleep during the early hours of the morning. Sure, we can wake them up (sort of), and they can adapt and even thrive on certain select tasks. But they do so at a cost, and it’s a cost that they’ll be repaying for the rest of their (shortened) lives.