Sleep Awareness – Let’s Get Real
With my focus to keep it real, let’s talk about taking personal responsibility for our health outcomes. Taking a preventive approach has always been my position. Since we designate the changing of the clocks with National Sleep Awareness Week, it is the perfect opportunity to look at our own sleep habits and search for ways to improve on the quality and quantity of sleep we get.
I was decluttering my office recently, and I came across the essay I submitted with my medical school application in 1976 (which was 47 years ago)! How satisfying it is to remain true to form. My posture about the need to address healthcare deficits was present in 1970 much like it is in 2023. Some specifics have changed, but overall, there is still a need for drastic steps to improve health care in this country.
Life expectancies at birth have dropped each of the past two years. The United States is now in 50th place in the world in this category. Americans have become complacent in self-care, relying on a disease driven, reactive healthcare system rather than a proactive preventive one. Leadership in our country and in the healthcare and insurance industries have not figured out how to provide enough effective rewards and incentives for maintaining good health. Failing to provide enough education starting at an early age and motivating parents to adopt and enforce evidence based, science proven approaches will doom the health of our population for years to come.
Let’s Talk Sleep & Your Health
Many people know the impact that our diet, physical activity, and exercise have on our health, but few really understand how important sleep is for our physical and mental health as well as the future of our cognitive abilities.
As an internist and geriatrician, I had a front-row seat (really it was a stool with wheels) to the consequences of inadequate quality and duration of sleep. I had been a victim because of my occupation and lack of knowledge at the time of the harmful effects.
Sleep & Brain Health
Today as our population ages, especially Baby Boomers, a large segment of our population is over the age of 80. This segment has a high prevalence of dementia and science has discovered that poor sleep quality and quantity in middle age can be a major contributor. In a long-term study, a Harvard Medical School study followed 2,800 individuals ages 65 and older. Researchers found that “individuals who slept under five hours per night were twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who slept six to eight hours per night.”
Good Sleep Habits
While we cannot make up for years of poor sleep, what we can do is start making sleep a priority for ourselves now. I encourage sharing this information with others (friends, family and others we care about) and emphasize the importance to young generations such as children and grandchildren.
We’ve talked about the disastrous outcomes of sleep deprivation resulting in the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Dow chemical plant disaster in India. Now, I am stressing the importance of a preventive, proactive approach to learn the best possible habits, integrating them into our lives and those we care about, and spreading the word (or as my wife Melissa says, pay it forward).
I encourage you to read my prior sleep blog posts to encourage and help you meet your sleep goals. Here is a review of some of my most important recommendations:
- Develop a routine for winding down before bedtime
- Avoid stimulating activities and exercise in the two to four hours before winding down
- Understand that your bedroom is your haven for sleep and intimacy only
- Eliminate electronic devices before bed – they emit too much light (especially blue light) which interferes with winding your brain down
- Set an achievable goal for hours of sleep and commit to it; seven to eight hours is what most experts suggest
As we come to the end of National Sleep Awareness Week, I encourage you to set some realistic goals for sleep and make yourself accountable. In doing so, you will improve your overall health and reduce your risk for cognitive decline later in life.
To a long and healthy life,
David Bernstein, MD