Americans Are Still Having a Hard Time Getting Enough Sleep – But the Situation is Improving

Last updated: December 3, 2019

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Scientists have been updating us with information about how we sleep and what they have told us so far is that every year, Americans sleep shorter and have more sleep problems, such as the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Two 2017 studies based their findings on the National Health Interview Survey which is conducted every year.

The latest news on the nation’s sleep seems promising – the National Sleep Foundation has released information in 2019 which shows small but important improvement since Americans are becoming better informed about sleep and its benefits today compared to years ago.

How much American sleep changed in the 13-year period

A study analyzed data from 2004 until 2017, and it shows a total increase of 9 million people whose sleep got shorter – from 28.2% to 32.9% of the population. 

Here we learned that not all racial and ethnic groups sleep the same. Even though all the major ones had shorter sleep time, a stunning 41% of black respondents had less than six hours of sleep per night while 33% of Hispanic and 31% of white respondents had short sleep in 2017.

Compared to 2004, the number of black and Hispanic people who have insufficient sleep increased by 7%, while the number of whites increased by about 2%.

To make matters worse, this study was based on self-reported sleep and scientists warn that people tend to overestimate their sleep time. We generally know when we went to bed, but we can’t know when we exactly fell asleep, so if we went to bed at midnight and woke up at 6 am, we have probably slept about five and a half hours, which is too short and dangerous

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Image source: ScienceNews

Researchers conclude that these rising sleep differences may deepen racial and ethnic health differences. 

Science has strong evidence that short sleep leads to a number of health problems and diseases from mental health (anxiety, depression, suicidality, dementia) to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, cancer, fertility problems, and many more.

Study authors noticed that in 2013 a short sleep trend began increasing and continued all the way through 2017. For this peculiar reason, another group of authors took data from 2013 onwards to study it even further.

American sleep difficulty change over five years

The Iowa State University research focused on data of almost 165,000 people who took the NIH Survey between 2013 and 2017. There was a small increase in those who reported having at least one difficulty falling asleep (1.43%) and staying asleep (2.70%) per week. Study authors say that even though these numbers seem small, when we apply them to the population, we get the number of additional five million Americans who are having sleep troubles or complain about short sleep. 

If we combine these numbers with those of the previous study we can see that in 10 years, starting in 2004 and through 2013, the number of short sleepers increased by 4 million, and then in only 5 years (2013-2017), it increased by 5 million more!

One contradiction of this study is that the average number of people who reported feeling well-rested after waking up increased – however, this was a short-term study and the results were skewed by a single-year surge.

For more details on American sleep in recent years, we’ll take a look at a study that presents data collected over 13 years.

The National Sleep Foundation in 2019: sleep and discipline pay off

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has some good and motivating news for you regarding their 2019 poll: if you sleep well throughout the week – which means you keep the same sleep schedule all the time – you’ll be able take it much better if you encounter an occasional shift in your sleep time. 

What does this mean in real life? Let’s take the Daylight Saving Time as an example. A one-hour spring shift basically means taking away one hour of your sleep. Someone who is well-rested and has been well-rested for weeks will not suffer that shift physically and emotionally as much as someone who had a different daily rhythm every day and whose circadian rhythm is in chaos. This means a consistent sleep schedule can literally save your life as there’s a spike in heart attacks every year after a DST change.

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That’s not the only benefit. Those with the most consistent sleep schedules and excellent sleep health were almost 3.5 times more likely to feel well-rested on any working day than people with poor sleep.

Source: The National Sleep Foundation

The best news is that NSF’s recent Sleep Health Index shows a slight improvement in how well Americans sleep – the score reached a high of 77/100 points. The positive trends are rising and we’re hoping they will continue. They say that people know more about sleep today and are learning that sleep is closely tied to health and overall wellbeing.

About sleep schedule

Your body thrives on a steady and consistent rhythm. It has an internal rhythm, the circadian clock, which regulates when you have the most energy and strength, when you are hungry, and when you’re tired or sleepy. In today’s world, it’s almost impossible for many people to have consistent eating, sleeping or exercising schedules. 

However, having a hectic sleep schedule has proven to be the most disastrous for your health. Some people believe it’s not important when they sleep as long as they get 8 hours of shuteye. 

The truth is that your body needs nightly sleep. The levels of melatonin increase only during nighttime and this hormone plays a role in helping you sleep through the night as well as killing cancer cells. Any type of night shift work is listed as a possible carcinogen by the WHO due to strong evidence which in some professions rose up to 50% of cancer cases. 

Your body also needs you to go to sleep and wake up at about the same time. This allows you to rest completely and in a healthy way. Constant changing of sleep time does not provide you with restorative sleep – you’ll only sleep because you’re exhausted and not because it’s biologically and physiologically the right time for it. 

Additional resources

  1. Are U.S. adults reporting less sleep?: Findings from sleep duration trends in the National Health Interview Survey, 2004–2017. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article-abstract/42/2/zsy221/5185637?redirectedFrom=fulltext
  2. Changes in sleep difficulties among the U.S. population from 2013 to 2017: results from the National Health Interview Survey. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352721819301834?via%3Dihub
  3. NSF’s 2019 Sleep in America® Poll Shows Disciplined Sleepers Reap Reward. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/nsfs-2019-sleep-america-poll-shows-disciplined-sleepers-reap-reward
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