By David Beier & Andrew Sullivan
Sleep deprivation is killing us.
More than one third of American adults report they get fewer than the 7 hours of sleep the Centers for Disease Control calls for. This qualifies sleep deprivation as a public health epidemic, according to CDC, citing its impact on obesity, depression, diabetes, heart disease, reduced immunity and maybe even Alzheimer’s Disease.
A dire picture, yes, but the implications reach beyond health. By reducing worker productivity, sleep deprivation acts as a drag on the U.S. economy. One estimate suggests sleep deprivation will cost our economy between $299 and $433 B in 2020.
Most troubling of all, however, is that we have no holistic plan to address this epidemic. A recent FDA safety announcement on the risks associated with sleepwalking — 26 years in the making — exemplifies the fragmented approach. Meanwhile, tens of millions of sleep-deprived Americans are turning to snake oil solutions like magic blankets, sleep-inducing lights and personalized temperature and airflow systems. Emerging evidence suggests some these over-the-counter products can be associated with adverse health outcomes like dementia. And yet we’re not taking the steps we need to take to address this health crisis.
Here’s what we need to do.
First, we should kick off a concerted national effort to more fully understand the scale and causes of sleep deprivation. The Surgeon General, National Institutes of Health and CDC should open the effort with a comprehensive report on sleep in America.
On a parallel path, the White House Domestic Policy Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers should weigh in with a report on the adverse economic effects of unhealthy sleep.
Further, the FDA and Federal Trade Commission should assess which remedies actually work. Today, we assess prescription drugs for safety and efficacy, but we give short shrift to their off-label or inappropriate long-term use. The authority of the FDA over dietary supplements is too weak. State medical agencies have jurisdiction over the later and must be enlisted in the cause. For consumer sleep products — a market of more than $40 billion per year — the accuracy of claims requires greater scrutiny. This is the FTC’s role. The Consumer Report of February 2016 is a case in point, noting many false or misleading claims from sleep products.
Last, our education and business leaders should play a leading role. Better scheduling by schools and employers will address some of sleep deprivation’s underlying causes. For example, research proves preschoolers need ten to thirteen hours of sleep. The expansion of preschool programs has implications for nap times. For older kids, forward-looking school districts are recognizing the different circadian rhythms of teenagers and starting schools later in the morning.
Meanwhile, U.S. employers are demanding longer hours and offering less scheduling flexibility and shift control. That’s why 18 percent of Americans report working more than 60 hours per week, putting our national work week far above other advanced economies, which average 44 hours per week. Forward-looking companies are acting in the interest of their employees and their long-term business prospects by reducing hours and offering greater scheduling flexibility to employees.
Healthy sleep is vital to our happiness and productivity in work and life. And that makes the absence of science-based and FDA-vetted sleep diagnostic tools and remedies all the more perplexing. The result is this: millions of Americans isolated and without remedy, at risk of misdiagnosis or ineffective sleep interventions. This group — tens of millions of people — deserves better.