Media and researchers alike often focus on the dark side of sleep: that (and why) we don’t get enough sleep, and that sleep deprivation has significant adverse impacts on biological and mental health, well-being, productivity and error rates. Amongst the many other things sleep researchers study, they also study behaviors and interventions that promote sleep. It is difficult to measure the impact of this research on a societal scale. However a study was published online in January (and available in print this month), whose authors argued that sleep duration in the US may be improving, perhaps as a result of the dissemination of sleep research.
The study in question is Sleep duration in the United States 2003–2016: first signs of success in the fight against sleep deficiency? by Mathias Basner and David F Dinges.
When asked whether our sleep is improving or not, or whether we are getting less sleep than ever now, I can never provide an unequivocal answer because these apparently simple questions are quite loaded and complex. Who are we talking about? How can we compare different populations, i.e., people in/of different age, occupation, sex, region, socio-economic status, etc.? Criteria for assessing sleep change over time and differ from study to study, as do other methodological features. In the case of insomnia, for instance, the definition has changed over time.
However, as difficult as these questions are, helpful versions of them are important for policy reasons.
No study is definitive, but the American Time Use Survey from which the foregoing data were drawn is interesting in that it involved 181,335 participants over 14 years.
While quantifying sleep on a population basis is extremely difficult and technical, what matters to most individuals is how they, their loved ones and their network are doing. There is now readily available technology and protocols for individuals to measure their sleep.
By acquiring and sharing helpful information, and by fostering a rational attitude towards sleep and wellness, we can make better health decisions as individuals, and we can influence our network.
On that note, I will end this post by repeating that not all sleep is equal. Quality of sleep is influenced, amongst many other things, by its timing (time of day) and nutrition (e.g., use of stimulants or alcohol).