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The Great Sleep Divide

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Sleep — Nature’s reset button. For many of us, sleep is a given — one whose health benefits we’ve never particularly considered. However, the rise of the insidious “sleep epidemic”, referring to the prevalence of inadequate sleep, has seen researchers and health experts calling for greater attention to the necessity of sleep. What’s more is that this phenomenon is particularly noticeable across racial and socioeconomic lines.

The Sleep Epidemic

Sleep researchers have long been ringing the alarm bells when it comes to the rising number of complaints regarding poor sleep, terming it the ‘epidemic of unrest’ or simply the ‘sleep epidemic’. A research conducted in the US found that more than a third of adults sleep less than the minimum recommended amount of 7 hours a night. Another study that took a more global perspective found that the pandemic served only to exacerbate some issues when it comes to inadequate sleep, with nearly 40% of individuals reporting sleep problems, such as insomnia.

For students, the sleep epidemic is even more pronounced — nearly 70% of high school students do not get the 8-10 hours of sleep recommended for their age group.

Implications

Most people consider poor sleep as a symptom, rather than a cause of illness. However, not getting an adequate amount of sleep, or having poor sleep, can have adverse impact on one’s mental and physical health. Research has demonstrated that those with sleep apnea tend to fall victim to more cardiovascular disease and strokes than those without, which can contribute to heart disease, cancer and arthritis.

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For teenagers, the statistics are even more alarming. A study conducted in Fairfax established insufficient sleep as a cause for depression, suicidality, and drug use. Each hour of lost sleep was associated with a 53% increase in suicide attempts, a grim figure that illustrates the tremendous importance that something as simple as a good night of sleep can have.

The Great Sleep Divide

The most concerning finding uncovered by research on sleep is that individuals belonging to lower-income and racial minority groups tend to be the ones who are most at risk of suffering sleep problems and, thus, mental and physical health issues. One study involving 2,000 participants from the US in 2015 found that, compared with whites, Black people were roughly five times as likely to sleep for shorter periods, while Hispanics and Chinese Americans were roughly twice as likely to get less sleep.

The implications of these findings are concerning, to say the least, because they point to an unending and vicious cycle of discrimination. Individuals belonging to lower-income and racial minority groups do not get enough sleep, which contributes to health problems that pose impediments to these individuals in the form of reduced productivity, medical bills, etc. Of course, all of these obstacles contribute to keeping these individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

This has been termed by researchers as the ‘Great Sleep Divide’, although it is perhaps not so surprising that the inequalities we find in society are reflected in everything down to our sleeping patterns.

What Next?

The implications of sleep research clearly highlight some important conclusions. Firstly, sleep is an essential behind-the-scenes activity that many people tend to disregard. Secondly, the implications of getting inadequate sleep tend to be harsher for the young, the poor, and racial minorities than for other groups.

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Scientists who spearheaded these researches are arguing for a shift in the way we perceive sleep as less of an individual responsibility and more as a public health priority. “We need to think of population-level interventions,” says Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist with the RAND Corporation, “including policies to ensure that healthy sleep is not merely a luxury for those who can afford it.” Perhaps it is time we start paying closer attention to something we have long taken for granted before we get pulled into the sleep epidemic!

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I'm a third-year student in the BIG program from Lahore, Pakistan. I enjoy learning about and discussing politics, history, and religion, and particularly the interactions between the three.

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