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Eyes Wide Open: Americans, Sleep and Stress

Eyes Wide Open: Americans, Sleep and Stress

by David W. Moore

A September 2001 article in the British Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that sleep-deprivation impairment can be as harmful as alcohol impairment, and that getting fewer than six hours of sleep can affect people's reactions, coordination and judgment, posing "a very serious risk" with regard to such activities as driving and operating machinery. Previously, CNN reported that some medical researchers believe lack of sleep is America's top health problem. (Sleep deprivation is also a significant problem for America's youth -- please see this week's Education & Youth section.)

A Gallup poll conducted this past December* finds that approximately one in six Americans (16%) report getting only five hours of sleep a night, thus putting them in the category of incurring serious risk. Another 55% of Americans report getting either six or seven hours of sleep, while 27% report at least eight hours. Overall, the average amount of sleep Americans report is 6.7 hours, about the same as what was reported in a Gallup survey in 1990, but about an hour less than what Gallup measured in 1942. The 1942 survey found only 3% of Americans reporting fewer than six hours of sleep, and 59% reporting eight hours or more.

Usually, how many hours sleep do you get at night?
  Number of Hours  
  Mean Median 8+ Hours 7 Hours 6 Hours 5 or Fewer Hours No response
  % % % % %
2001 Dec 6-9 6.70 7.0 28 28 27 16 1
1990 Sep 14-16 6.72 7.0 27 30 28 14 1
1942 Jan 8-14 7.60* 8.0 59 25 8 3 5
*Estimated from percentages

Low Levels of Sleep Related to Stress

Apparently, Americans tend to recognize when they are sleep deprived -- many say they would feel better with more sleep. Even more significantly from a health perspective, those who report stress in their daily lives are more likely to report low levels of sleep than are those who rarely experience stress.

Overall, 54% of Americans say they get as much sleep as they need, but 45% admit they would feel better with more sleep. As shown in the following table, those who get enough sleep report an average of just over seven hours of sleep per night, compared with just six hours among those who say they do not get enough sleep.

The most significant findings from a health perspective can be found on the question about stress. Those who say stress occurs frequently report just 6.3 hours of sleep per night, compared with 6.8 hours among those who "sometimes" experience stress, and 7.1 hours among those who rarely or never experience stress. Among the group that rarely or never experience stress, more than four in 10 (42%) say they usually get more than eight hours of sleep, while only 12% report getting fewer than six hours. By contrast, among those who experience stress frequently, only 21% get at least eight hours of sleep, while 24% get fewer than six hours.

  Number of Hours They Get
  Mean Median 8+ Hours 7 Hours 6 Hours 5 or Fewer Hours
  % % % %
2001 Dec 6-9
Get as much sleep as you need?  
Yes 7.2 7.0 44 31 20 5
No 6.0 6.0 9 26 36 29
How often experience stress?  
Frequently 6.3 6.0 21 26 29 24
Sometimes 6.8 7.0 29 34 28 9
Rarely/Never 7.1 7.0 42 24 22 12

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,019 national adults, aged 18+, conducted Dec. 14-16, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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