"To sleep -- perchance to dream," wrote Shakespeare in his masterpiece play, Hamlet. It's a nice concept. For some people, however, the elusive road to slumberland is anything but a dream.
For many, the road is paved with obstacles - often a sleep disorder, ranging from insomnia to restless legs syndrome to sleep apnea, during which individuals usually snore, experience fitful sleep, and may stop breathing for short periods, in some instances hundreds of times a night. The consequences of sleep deprivation, specifically the "problem sleepiness" during the day that normally follows, can have extremely serious, even life-threatening consequences.
Considering we spend nearly one-third of our lives tucked in bed, you would think we would know how to get a good night's rest. Not so for many. If you have sleep difficulties, you're not yawning alone - chances are some of your family members, coworkers, and neighbors also have a "sleep debt," the cumulative effect of not getting the quantity or quality of sleep that one needs. As many as 70 million Americans are afflicted with sleep-related problems.
While some sleep disturbances may be linked to biological changes associated with aging or certain physical diseases, especially those that cause pain, others may be associated with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. Poor sleep may also stem from "bad" habits such as napping too long or too late in the day, or doing shift work. On the other hand, you may simply not be giving yourself the opportunity to acquire ample shuteye.
Nature of sleep deprivation
The drivers at highest risk are third shift workers, people that drive a substantial number of miles each day, those with unrecognized sleep disorders, and those prescribed medication with sedatives.
Why isn't America getting a better night's rest? We live in a society that runs 24 hours a day. There are multiple responsibilities at work and home. When pushed for time, one thing people give up is sleep. When you sacrifice hours this way, however, you may end up paying for it in terms of decreased productivity and an increased risk for errors in judgment and accidents.
Insomnia - the inability to fall asleep and remain there - affects many millions of people. Sleep apnea affects another 10 to 15 million. Narcolepsy [falling asleep uncontrollably during the day], affects around 200,00. About 5 percent of the population have number have restless legs syndrome [RLS].
While people of any age may be affected, there seems to be a large prevalence of sleep disturbances among elderly men and women. Sleep studies reveal that they get less REM (deep) sleep over time. With aging, sleep becomes more fragile, that is, it doesn't take much disturbance to awaken the individual. Women may first notice this during menopause.
Lack of sleep and its link to accidents - automobile and on-the-job - now appears to be a problem of far greater magnitude than previously believed. Fatigue leads to diminished mental alertness and concentration. Often it's the resultant "near miss" (in a motor vehicle or otherwise) that sometimes makes people recognize they have a problem and need to seek professional help.
Death rates based on miles driven at night are twice as high as those during the day in the US. Shift workers are especially prone to this problem. Their biological clock is ticking at the wrong time, and they typically drive home after work when they're extremely tired.
What about napping?
In some countries, a siesta or short daytime rest is a respected, time-honored daily ritual. With older people in particular, napping can help make up some of the sleep lost at night. Napping can increase productivity and help restore your ability to think.
What about waking up too early, like before the birds' first chirp? While such "early morning awakenings" may be a sign of depression or other treatable emotional disorders, the passage of time may be the culprit. Although people who are older need as much sleep as ever they don't seem to be able to get it. In some cases, going to bed a bit later may help reset your biological clock and allow you to sleep later.
How many hours per night should you sleep? Most sleep experts believe you should get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. This figure varies considerably across the age span and from person to person. Still, if you're getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night regularly, chances are you're building up your "sleep debt," and may be compromising your health and welfare, sleep authorities contend.
If you're having chronic sleep difficulties, should you merely lie there and take it? No. Try practicing sensible sleep habits. If you've done all you can, however, and still aren't getting good, quality sleep, talk with your family doctor. If you need additional help, ask for a referral to a sleep specialist. This may be needed, in particular, for more complex conditions such as narcolepsy. While this disease is not curable, it is treatable, though the regimen with carefully prescribed medications is complicated, and best handled by a sleep specialist. On the other hand, sleep apnea treatment can be very helpful.