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Making Sleep a Priority


We know sleep is important, and yet most of us do not get enough. In addition to goals of exercising more, eating healthier, saving more or spending less, consider putting “get more sleep” on your list.

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The potential consequences of lack of sleep and sleep problems are many and well-documented, such as increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Sleep problems can also have a significant effect on your mental health. Sleep is connected to mental health in a number of ways. Sleep problems can both be caused by and contribute to mental health problems. Recent research funded by the National Institutes of Health has linked poor sleep to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

While the needs and concerns may vary, sleep problems affect people of all ages. For example, some 30 percent of college students reported that in the past year sleep difficulties were “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle,” according to a study by the American College Health Association.

One major culprit contributing to sleep problems for many people is the use of electronic devices for reading, communication or entertainment at bedtime. According to research presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2015, use of portable light-emitting screens before bedtime has numerous consequences: increases the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, reduces levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount of REM sleep and reduces alertness the following morning.

So how much sleep do you need? And what can you do to get more and better sleep?

In 2015 the National Sleep Foundation updated its recommendations for the amount of sleep we should get at every age. Though research cannot pinpoint an exact amount of sleep needed by people at different ages, the chart below identifies “rule-of-thumb” amounts that experts agree upon.

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Among the changes from earlier recommendations: the range for newborns was narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18); the ranges for infants through teenagers were widened; and new age categories were added for younger adults (recommended sleep of 7-9 hours) and for older adults (recommended sleep of 7-8 hours).

The Sleep Foundation notes that while these are general guidelines, it’s important to pay attention to your own individual needs and assess how you feel on different amounts of sleep. Consider your mood, energy and health after a poor night’s sleep versus a good one. If you’re having sleep problems a Sleep Diary is available from the Foundation that can help you track your sleep habits and provide helpful information for your doctor.

There are many things you can to do improve your sleep. The four key recommendations from the National Healthy Sleep Awareness project, supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine are illustrated in this graphic.

Other sleep tips from the National Sleep Foundation include:

  • Sticking to a sleep schedule, even on weekends
  • Practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual
  • Exercising daily
  • Turning off electronics before bed

While many people may turn to over-the-counter or prescription medication to help with sleep, a large review of recent research found cognitive behavioral therapy effective in addressing sleep problems without the potential drawbacks of medication. Other research found that practicing mindfulness awareness helped older adults with getting to sleep and staying asleep. Both of these provide people with tools and skills that they draw on at any time in their lives as needs arise.

For more information visit the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.


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