Sleep Deprivation, Uncovered

By Nadine Salmon, BSN, IBCLC, Clinical Content Specialist, AMN Healthcare

Did you know that an estimated 50 to 70 million adults in the United States have chronic sleep or wakefulness disorders, and the percentage of adults who report averaging less than seven hours of sleep per night has increased by about one third since the 1980s?(National Institutes of Health [NIH], 2011). Sleep deficiency and disorders are associated with a growing number of long-term health problems, including a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and other chronic disorders. According to the NIH, research has shown that sleep disturbances can negatively affect one’s quality of life and contribute to the risk of developing several medical and social disorders, including mental illness.

The consequences of sleep deprivation are daunting as well. In the short term, sleep deprivation can cause a significant reduction in performance and alertness; reducing one’s nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32% (Breus, 2006). Sleep deprivation can result in excessive daytime sleepiness, which may impair memory and cognitive ability. And it doesn’t end there. Disruption of a partner's sleep due to a sleep disorder can cause significant relationship issues and decrease the quality of life overall. According to WebMD (2011), excessive sleepiness increases the risk of sustaining an occupational injury by more than two-fold. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conservatively estimates that drowsy drivers are responsible for at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities per year (Breus, 2006).

In the long term, the clinical consequences of untreated sleep disorders are just as troubling.  Sleep disorders are associated with numerous, serious medical illnesses, including elevated blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), mental impairment and growth retardation in children (Breus, 2006).

In November 2011, the National Institutes of Health released the 2011 NIH Sleep Disorders Research Plan. This plan identifies research opportunities to be pursued over the next three to five years in order to encourage new approaches to the prevention and treatment of sleep disorders. Recommended research initiatives include investigating the connection between sleep and circadian systems (the body's natural 24-hour cycle), studying the influence of genetic and environmental factors that could influence a person's sleep health, and conducting more comparative effectiveness trials to improve treatments for sleep and circadian disorders (NIH, 2011).

As a community service initiative, the NIH has published Your Guide to Healthy Sleep which provides the latest science-based information about sleep. The booklet offers helpful information about common sleep disorders, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome (RLS), narcolepsy and other parasomnias, as well as practical tips for getting an adequate night’s sleep. For a free copy, visit the NIH website.


Breus, M. (2006). Chronic Sleep Deprivation May Harm Health. WebMD Featured Article. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/important-sleep-habits?

National Institutes of Health [NIH], 2011. Updated NIH Sleep Disorders Research Plan seeks to promote and protect sleep health. Retrieved from: http://www.nih.gov/news/health/nov2011/nhlbi-09.htm

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