September 28, 2007

Prof Continues Campaign Against Sleep Deprivation

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It is (almost) a universally acknowledged truth that a Cornell University student must be in want of sleep.
Prof. Maas would have preferred the word “need” over “want.”
“Unfortunately, the treating of sleep as a luxury, as opposed to a necessity, is born out of ignorance,” said Prof. James Maas Ph.D. ’66, psychology, who lectures more than 1,300 students every year on the importance of sleep in his PSYCH 101 class.
The current generation of Cornellians are more sleep-deprived than ever, and they are nowhere near getting the ideal 9.25 hours of sleep. “When I started on faculty in 1964 … people got around seven hours. Now the average is 6.1 hours per night at Cornell,” said Maas.
One of his recent surveys shows that more than 40 percent Cornellians are “often sleepy” and fall asleep in class at least once a week.
“As a general rule, every hour you’re up adds to your ‘sleep debt.’ It takes one hour of sleep to get rid of two hours of wakefulness … It’s [also] accumulative. At the end of six hours of sleep per night for two weeks, you’re no better than a person who pulls an all-nighter,” said Maas.
Cornell students are not alone in fighting the urge to stay awake. According to the National College Health Assessment survey in 2006, sleep difficulties are the third major impediment to undergraduates’ academic performances, after stress and illness.
In fact, sleep-deprivation may be turning into a hidden pandemic in America. A pamphlet distributed in the Gannett Health Center stated that 35 percent of Americans have difficulty with sleep, and Maas claimed that America has recently overtaken Japan and South Korea as the most sleep-deprived country in the world.
“The main reasons are economic and stress,” said Maas. “The times have become more economically burdensome, more politically stressful and people get busier and busier.”
But at Cornell, there may be more specific reasons. “The culture in some academic areas is [to] work all the time. That may contribute to some people feeling unable to make choices that are better suited for an individual’s need for sleep,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations of Gannett Health Services.
The consequences of sleep deprivation can be serious.
“All sorts of things you don’t want as a scholar happen when you don’t sleep enough,” said Maas. The negative side-effects of sleeplessness may range from physical problems such as headaches, forgetfulness and lethargy to mental problems such as increased stress and depression.
Prolonged sleep-deprivation also makes you no more alert than a drunkard. “A person who goes for two weeks with six hours [of sleep] is as cognitively impaired as someone who’s drunk with a 0.1 percent blood alcohol content (BAC),” said Maas. A study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, an international science journal, supported his claim and showed that more than 19 hours of sleeplessness has a larger impact on response speeds and accuracy measures than a BAC of 0.1 percent.
Moreover, research also shows a strong correlation between a lack of sleep and obesity. According to The National Sleep Foundation, characteristics of diabetes are exhibited in healthy young adults who sleep four hours a night. Maas attributed the elevated blood sugar level to a decrease in the secretion of leptin, a brain hormone that indicates the degree of hunger. As a result, one’s desire for junk food develops. “The best diet is not Atkins and South Beach but sleeping longer,” concluded Maas.
Although 9.25 hours a night may seem like a dream goal to many students, Maas and Dittman encouraged students to place more importance on sleep. “Many of us live in denial of how important sleep is,” said Dittman.
Maas agreed. “People in Cornell are pretty careful in what they eat. [However,] they tend to completely ignore that sleep is as important as exercise and nutrition,” he said.
“Even if they add one more hour, they’ll see a tremendous difference in their performance,” emphasised Maas.
Better time management may be a key in making the 9.25 hours dream come true. Varsity swimmer Jill Berlin ’10 has recently improved her “sleep hygiene” and attributed the extra two hours of sleep to better time management. “I may [also] have to sacrifice a little study time, but I’m more awake in general, so I get work done faster and more efficiently.” The increase in sleep has also helped her in coping with more intensive swimming trainings.
Austin Rho ’10, who on average sleeps seven hours nightly, also acknowledged the importance of time-management. “I have to work on time-management … go to the library more and not study in front of the computer.”
According to a leaflet “Let’s C.U. Sleep!” published by Gannett Health Services, other sleeping strategies include keeping a regular bedtime and rising time; avoiding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and heavy meals and letting go of worries and frustrations before bedtime.