Recent studies which document the hurtful effects of sleep deprivation on astronauts point to damage it could also cause to more people as well. Researchers at Brigham Women’s Hospital Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders and Harvard Medical School completed a 10-year study of 64 astronauts on 80 Shuttle missions and 21 astronauts on International Space Station (ISS) missions. Astronauts typically get less than six hours of sleep a night during training, and an average of 6.09 hours during flights. They found 78 percent of the astronauts used sleeping pills such as Zolpidern or Zalephon, which is known to affect problem solving abilities.
The CDC describes the lack of sleep as an “epidemic” in the U.S. A recent poll shows 40 percent of Americans are not getting enough sleep. Most people need at least seven hours a night and eight is recommended.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation are drowsiness, clumsiness, daytime sleepiness, or poor sleep. In normal sleep deprivation, anxiety, accidents, or even depression could become a problem. Some causes of sleep deprivation are emotional trauma, jet lag, divorce, or work stress.
Dr. Kuimil Mohan, a neurologist at St. Vincent Health, points out that when people are sleep deprived they have trouble paying attention and a foggy brain can be dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there are about 1,500 deaths on U.S. roads each year that may be attributed to drivers who fell asleep or were tired. In Indiana alone, last year there were more than 2,600 crashes, involving 832 hurt and 11 dead.
Sleep deprivation hurts more than astronauts. Over time, sleep deprivation can cause diabetes, hypertension, and increase risk for strokes and/or heart attacks. Research shows it may even contribute to some cancers. Furthermore, studies have linked sleep deprivation to obesity, as it has been shown to affect insulin sensitivity, as well as two other hormones. People sleeping only five hours a night were 73 percent more likely to be obese. Those sleeping seven to nine hours a night had a 27 percent risk.
The effects of sleep deprivation include impaired memory, increased resting blood pressure, a lower stress threshold, and an increased risk of heart attack. Effects also include trouble concentrating, increased appetite, impaired creativity and innovation, as well as a decreased optimism and sociability level.
A new study utilized 100 pairs of twins. First, researchers tracked their sleep for a week. Then, both groups stayed awake for 38 hours, while taking cognitive tests every two hours. They found the need for sleep is a biological requirement, not merely a personal preference. The study found twins who carried a certain gene slept five hours per night, while twins without the gene slept six hours each night. The group with more sleep made 40 percent fewer errors on the cognitive tests and required less sleep for recovery.
A University of California study concludes sleep deprivation could be partially to blame for false memories, which is when people “remember” an event but add information which never actually happened. Steven Frenda, the lead researcher, says sleep deprivation may make our memories “more easily manipulated and more pliable.” This study has tremendous implications for eyewitnesses in court, surgeons making decisions, or any time in which a mistake could have grave consequences.
The National Registry of Exonerations, which keeps records of every known exoneration in the U.S. since 1989, found 36 percent of exonerees were convicted at least partly because of mistaken eyewitness identification. This aspect contributed to 72 percent of the 317 convictions, which were overturned because of DNA testing.
Astronauts are not the only ones hurt by sleep deprivation. Sleep not only helps us stay alert, but aids in memory and can prevent neurological decline. Seeing the effects of sleep deprivation effectively applies to everyone.
By Laurie Stilwell