Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on health and safety

Thursday, 09 February, 2017

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A large number of Australians do not get enough sleep, damaging their health and the productivity of the nation.

According to research by the Sleep Health Foundation, 33–45% of adults sleep poorly or not long enough, leaving them with fatigue and other side effects of sleep deprivation.

In addition, one in five people admitted that they have fallen asleep while driving.

“These worrying results just go to show that sleep is not the national health priority it needs to be,” said Dr David Hillman, a director of the Sleep Health Foundation.

“Just like obesity, smoking, drinking too much and not exercising enough, sleep problems cause real harm in our community. It’s high time we moved this issue off the backburner to the forefront of national thinking.”

University of Adelaide’s Professor Robert Adams led the online study of 1011 Australians, using a representative sample. It found sleep problems, such as difficulties sleeping at least a few times a week or more, or sleep-related daytime symptoms, are very common, affecting more than a third of adults. Women are significantly more likely than men to have difficulty falling asleep, waking too early, feeling unrefreshed, sleepy, fatigued, exhausted, irritable and moody, even when they sleep as much as men.

Diagnosed sleep disorders are common, with men more likely to suffer from the night-time breathing condition obstructive sleep apnoea and women hardest hit by insomnia.

In addition, internet usage before bed is having an increasing impact on sleeping patterns.

“Overall, 44% of adults are on the internet just before bed almost every night and 59% of these late-night workers, web surfers, movie watchers or online gamers have more than two sleep problems,” said Hillman.

“This is no coincidence. This habit is having a direct and very negative impact on sleep, and without a cohesive national strategy to combat it, this won’t change.”

The survey found that 29% of adults drive while drowsy at least once a month, while 21% of men and 13% of women have fallen asleep at work in the past month.

A comparison with the foundation’s 2010 survey suggests sleep problems and their consequences are 5 to 10% worse than they were six years ago.

“There is a false belief shared by a lot of us that sleep is a waste of time and that we can get away with less than we really need,” said Hillman.

“But the truth is people who cut corners with their sleep function below their best. They are not as mentally sharp, as vigilant, as attentive or as patient as they would otherwise be.

The result is a less productive, less safe and less pleasant work and family environment. Risk of accidents increases, while workplace performance goes down and a person’s health is adversely affected.

While individuals can make lifestyle changes to help get a better night’s sleep, the Sleep Health Foundation believes the problem is so widespread and insidious that a national health strategy is needed to turn trends around.

“We need a fundamental change in the way sleep is viewed by everyone, from teenagers, parents and teachers through to bosses, doctors and our top politicians,” said Hillman.

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