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Recognizing the Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

If you regularly get less sleep than your brain requires, then you are, by definition, sleep deprived. Every year, thousands of sleep-deprived people are involved in automobile and industrial accidents, and their sleepiness is frequently cited as a contributing factor in the accidents. The National Sleep Foundation believes the problem is so pervasive that it has established a national Drowsy Driver education program to inform people about the dangers of driving while sleep deprived. But an increased risk for accidents is just one part of the consequences you may suffer if you continue to deprive your brain and body of the sleep they require to keep you healthy.

Problems associated with poor sleep

If you're sleeping poorly on most nights, you probably feeling pretty pooped. If you can keep your eyes open long enough, read through the following list of problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation.

If you're sleep deprived, you may:

  • Age more rapidly
  • Be more susceptible to colds, flu, and other infections
  • Display an increased risk of accidents due to sleepiness and poor coordination
  • Experience more emotional problems, including depression and anxiety
  • Feel irritable and experience mood swings
  • Forget important information
  • Have reduced ability to deal with stress
  • Increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and death
  • Show poor judgment, poor concentration, and an inability to make decisions

Unfortunately, if you're stumbling around like a zombie during the day because you're sleep deprived, your sleepiness could pose a real danger for you and those around you.

Sleepiness and driving

U.S. roadways and highways are littered with the corpses of drunk and sleepy drivers and their victims. The National Highway Transportation Safety Association reports that sleepy drivers are involved in as many crashes as drunk drivers. And sleepy driving accidents tend to be more violent than drunk-driving accidents because even the drunkest driver has some sort of ability to react and respond to an emergency situation, even if that ability is impaired. A driver who is asleep doesn't react to the emergency situation at all because he or she is completely unaware.

Public awareness of drunk driving is high, but sleepy driving is barely on the radar. Sleepy drivers cause more than 100,000 traffic accidents every year, accidents that could all be prevented if everyone made sure they had enough sleep before operating a motor vehicle. According to the National Sleep Foundation, drowsy-driving accidents cause 1,550 unnecessary deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in property losses and lost productivity every year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 1 million accidents are caused annually by driver inattention. Two of the highest risk factors for inattentiveness behind the wheel are sleep deprivation and fatigue. Sleepy drivers aren't just putting themselves at risk by getting behind the wheel; they're putting their passengers as well as other drivers and their passengers at risk. They are also a threat to pedestrians.

People who drive for a living have an even higher risk of being in an accident while driving. Approximately 47 percent of all truck drivers report that they've fallen asleep at the wheel at least once during their driving careers.

Sleepiness and industrial accidents

The list of industrial accidents caused, at least in part, by sleepy workers in key positions reads like a "Who's Who" of disaster headlines over the past several decades.

Pilot fatigue and the resulting diminished judgment were given part of the blame for the 1999 American Airlines crash in Little Rock, Arkansas. Sleep deprivation was also involved in the accident with the Staten Island Ferry that crashed into the dock at full speed in October 2003. The assistant captain piloting the ferry made no attempt to slow the boat down because he was sound asleep at the controls. Many other disasters were caused by key personnel who made bad decisions because they were operating on too little sleep.

Many industries are finally waking up to the fact that allowing their employees to work with too little sleep is dangerous. However, just as many employers ignore the fact that humans require adequate sleep to function well. So for every intern program that now allows its young doctors to sleep six hours every night, you still have a program that pushes its doctors to perform on one or two hours sleep (or no sleep), and that lack of sleep can lead to serious medical mistakes. Even worse, these programs may require house staff to work back-to-back shifts with no break in between. Increasing pressure has come to bear on work schedules during medical training in the wake of several high-profile wrongful death cases.

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