Your kids need more sleep (and probably you, too)

Fascinating article in New York Magazine this week about the ever-increasing wealth of scientific information on just how bad chronic sleep deprivation is for kids in myriad ways.  In fact, there's actually more evidence that lack of sleep is responsible for the growth of childhood obesity rates than changes in kids' diets.  The article reports on some disturbing findings from a number of experiments:

The University of Pennsylvania?s David Dinges did an experiment
shortening adults? sleep to six hours a night. After two weeks, they
reported they were doing okay. Yet on a battery of tests, they proved
to be just as impaired as someone who has stayed awake for 24 hours

“Sleep deprivation hits the
hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived
people fail to recall pleasant memories yet recall gloomy memories just
fine. In one experiment…sleep-deprived college students tried to
memorize a list of words. They could remember 81 percent of the words
with a negative connotation, like cancer. But they could remember only
41 percent of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like
sunshine or basket.”…

Sadeh sent 77 fourth-graders and sixth-graders home with randomly drawn
instructions to either go to bed earlier or stay up later for three
nights. Each child was given an actigraph (a wristwatchlike device
that?s equivalent to a seismograph for sleep activity), which enabled
Sadeh?s team to learn that the first group managed to get 30 minutes
more sleep per night. The latter got 31 minutes less sleep…The performance gap caused by an hour?s difference in sleep was bigger
than the normal gap between a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader. Which
is another way of saying that a slightly sleepy sixth-grader will
perform in class like a mere fourth-grader. ?A loss of one hour of
sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation
and development
,? [emphasis mine] Sadeh explains…

It?s drilled into us that we need to be more active to lose weight.
So it spins the mind to hear that a key to staying thin is to spend
more time doing the most sedentary inactivity humanly possible. Yet
this is exactly what some scientists seem to be finding. In light of
Van Cauter?s discoveries, sleep scientists have performed a flurry of
analyses on children. All the studies point in the same direction: On
average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep
more. This isn?t just in the U.S.; scholars around the world are
considering it, as they watch sleep data fall and obesity rates rise in
their own countries.

Three foreign studies showed
strikingly similar results. One analyzed Japanese elementary students,
one Canadian kindergarten boys, and one young boys in Australia. They
all showed that kids who get less than eight hours of sleep have about
a 300 percent higher rate of obesity than those who get a full ten
hours of sleep. Within that two-hour window, it was a ?dose-response?
relationship, according to the Japanese scholars.

Houston public schools, according to a University of Texas at Houston
study, adolescents? odds of obesity went up 80 percent for each hour of
lost sleep.

After reading all this, I definitely realized that I spend my high school years entirely sleep-deprived.  I guess I should be all the more proud of my good grades as a result.  Maybe if I was getting 8 hours instead of 7, I would have been at Harvard instead of Duke.  I would've really missed the basketball, though.

I think a really interesting aspect of this research are the findings that high schools and middle schools really need to start later.  Mine started at 7:30, and my kids are slated to start at 7:30 once they hit 6th grade– which scares and appalls me.  Especially in light of evidence like this:

Convinced by the mountain of studies, a handful of school districts
around the nation are starting school later in the morning. The best
known of these is in Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of
Minneapolis, where the high school start time was changed from 7:25
a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the
time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of
Edina?s students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent
averaged 1500, an increase that couldn?t be attributed to any other
variable. ?Truly flabbergasting,? said Brian O?Reilly, the College
Board?s executive director for SAT Program Relations, on hearing the

trailblazing school district is Lexington, Kentucky?s, which also moved
its start time an hour later. After the time change, teenage car
accidents in Lexington were down 16 percent. The rest of the state
showed a 9 percent rise.

Of course, the article goes on to explain that most school systems are too afraid of such a dramatic change to do what is so clearly in the best interest of the kids.  Oh well, that's enough– I think I should go to bed. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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