A Good Night’s Sleep: Why It Matters

I don’t sleep much. Even if you count an afternoon nap and dozing in front of the TV following the warm glow of Happy Hour, I’m lucky to get four or five hours of shut eye each day. Looks like more and more people are starting to join me with less and less sleep.

And that ain’t good.

Jane Brody has an eye-opening view of all this in a recent NYT “personal health” column, “A Good Night’s Sleep Isn’t a Luxury; It’s a Necessity.”

Studies have shown that people function best after seven to eight hours of sleep, so I now aim for a solid seven hours, the amount associated with the lowest mortality rate. Yet on most nights something seems to interfere, keeping me up later than my intended lights-out at 10 p.m. — an essential household task, an e-mail requiring an urgent and thoughtful response, a condolence letter I never found time to write during the day, a long article that I must read.

It’s always something.

What’s Keeping Us Up?

I know I’m hardly alone. Between 1960 and 2010, the average night’s sleep for adults in the United States dropped to six and a half hours from more than eight. Some experts predict a continuing decline, thanks to distractions like e-mail, instant and text messaging, and online shopping.

Age can have a detrimental effect on sleep. In a 2005 national telephone survey of 1,003 adults ages 50 and older, the Gallup Organization found that a mere third of older adults got a good night’s sleep every day, fewer than half slept more than seven hours, and one-fifth slept less than six hours a night.

With advancing age, natural changes in sleep quality occur. People may take longer to fall asleep, and they tend to get sleepy earlier in the evening and to awaken earlier in the morning. More time is spent in the lighter stages of sleep and less in restorative deep sleep. R.E.M. sleep, during which the mind processes emotions and memories and relieves stress, also declines with age.

Habits that ruin sleep often accompany aging: less physical activity, less time spent outdoors (sunlight is the body’s main regulator of sleepiness and wakefulness), poorer attention to diet, taking medications that can disrupt sleep, caring for a chronically ill spouse, having a partner who snores. Some use alcohol in hopes of inducing sleep; in fact, it disrupts sleep.

Add to this list a host of sleep-robbing health issues, like painful arthritis, diabetes, depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, hot flashes in women and prostate enlargement in men. In the last years of his life, my husband was plagued with restless leg syndrome, forcing him to get up and walk around in the middle of the night until the symptoms subsided. During a recent night, I was awake for hours with leg cramps that simply wouldn’t quit.

Beauty Rest and Beyond

A good night’s sleep is much more than a luxury. Its benefits include improvements in concentration, short-term memory, productivity, mood, sensitivity to pain and immune function.

If you care about how you look, more sleep can even make you appear more attractive. In a study published online in December in the journal BMJ, researchers in Sweden and the Netherlands reported that 23 sleep-deprived adults seemed to untrained observers to be less healthy, more tired and less attractive than they appeared to be after a full night’s sleep.

Perhaps more important, losing sleep may make you fat — or at least, fatter than you would otherwise be. In a study by Harvard researchers involving 68,000 middle-aged women followed for 16 years, those who slept five hours or less each night were found to weigh 5.4 pounds more — and were 15 percent more likely to become obese — than the women who slept seven hours nightly.

Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in Scottsdale, Ariz., and author of “The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan,” points out that as the average length of sleep has declined in the United States, the average weight of Americans has increased.

OK. We’re sliding head first into the weekend and many use Saturday and Sunday as days to snooze for a few extra hours.

Sweet dreams. It’s good for you.

And I’ll still be up hours before Mr. Sol as a pajama-clad citizen journalist trying to sort fact from fiction in stories involving the Weiner, Afghanistan, Newt, the jobless economic recovery,the crisis in education, MLB’s designated hitter rule and so on.

Good grief. No wonder I can’t sleep.

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