It was just before dawn on a Saturday morning, and most of the 32 passengers on a tour bus traveling from a Connecticut casino to New York City were fast asleep. Suddenly, the riders were jolted awake as the bus struck the right-hand guardrail at 64 mph, almost 15 mph over the speed limit. The vehicle flipped on its side and skidded more than the length of two football fields before hitting a signpost that sheared off the top half of the bus like a tin can. Fifteen people on board died. The others were injured, many seriously.
The driver claimed he’d been clipped by a passing tractor trailer, but a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found that he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. “It was a fatigue accident,” says Mark R. Rosekind, PhD, a sleep expert and an NTSB member. The NTSB found that the driver hadn’t slept for more than three hours in a row in the 72 hours preceding the crash.
Traffic accidents related to fatigue are disturbingly common. They tend to make headlines either when the fatalities are very high—as with the March 2011 accident described above—or when there is a celebrity involved, as with the accident that injured comedian Tracy Morgan last June. The truck driver involved in Morgan’s accident is being charged with vehicular homicide, and the prosecutor alleges that the driver was awake for more than 24 hours preceding the crash. (The driver, who has pleaded not guilty, denies that he was sleep-deprived.) The NTSB estimates that fatigue contributes to as many as a quarter of all transportation accidents—whether car, bus, truck, train, or plane.
That statistic sounds shocking, but experts have known the truth for years: The nation is in the midst of a sleep crisis. In fact, in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared insufficient sleep a public health epidemic—a warning on par with those released about tobacco decades ago. “Sleep-deprived is the new normal, like smoking was in the 1950s,” says Russell Sanna, PhD, former executive director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Fifty years ago, even doctors smoked, and it took the surgeon general and an enormous public health campaign to convince people that the habit could be deadly.
Sleep Deficits—They Hurt In Surprising Ways
According to the National Sleep Foundation, everyone, with few exceptions, needs seven to nine hours of sleep a night in order for the body and mind to function optimally. But a CDC survey found that more than a third of adults reported less than seven hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period. Other experts believe the numbers are even more alarming. “Some of the latest polls show that nearly three quarters of the adult population is not getting the recommended amount of sleep,” says James Maas, PhD, former chair of the psychology department at Cornell University and author of Sleep for Success.
Transportation is the most obvious area where sleepiness exacts a terrible toll—the National Department of Transportation estimates that drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries every year in the United States—but it’s hardly the only one. Every aspect of our lives is affected by our sleep, from our health to our relationships to our work performance. Sanna puts it bluntly: “Lack of sleep makes us sick, fat, and stupid.”
Sick … because insufficient sleep has been linked to hypertension, diabetes, depression, and early death. Last year, researchers from the University of Chicago published a report showing that poor-quality sleep can speed the growth of cancer and hamper the immune system’s ability to fight off abnormal cells in mice.
Fat … because lack of sleep causes metabolic changes that can lead to weight gain plus hormonal changes that can increase hunger and cognitive changes that can make it difficult to resist that slice of cake. In 2012, researchers at the University of Colorado found that losing just a few hours of sleep for a few nights in a row can lead to extra pounds.
Stupid … because not getting enough sleep affects memory, concentration, reaction time, judgment, and decision making. Last March, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that just three consecutive nights of four to five hours of sleep could lead to irreversible brain cell damage. The study was done with mice, but researchers believe the results may apply to humans too.
Recent research at the University of Rochester shows that during sleep, the brain appears to conduct physiological maintenance, clearing itself of the junk that accumulates in cells during the day as a by-product of thinking. When someone doesn’t get the optimal amount of sleep, the system backs up, and the chemical waste accumulates. The resulting garbage pileup may be why insufficient sleep has also been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.