It was civilization that created the dilemma of sleep loss. The sun presumably dictated the habits of ancient people: when it was up they were awake, and when it went down they slept. The discovery of fire probably allowed the first change in that pattern. As flames lit the dark, surely some adventurous souls delayed bedtime.
However, sweeping change came only a century ago with the introduction of the light bulb. U.S. inventor Thomas Edison’s glowing device permitted cheap, safe and efficient illumination throughout the darkest nights. By the end of World War II, Americans were sleeping about eight hours a night.
Today new cultural and economic forces are combining to turn the U.S. into a 24-hour society. Many TV stations, restaurants and supermarkets operate through the day and night. Business is increasingly plugged into international markets that require round-the-clock monitoring and frequent travel across time zones.
But not all sleeplessness is caused by hectic schedules. Clinical sleep disorders are a major contributor to the national drowsiness. Many Americans suffer from nocturnal myoclonus, a condition in which their legs twitch throughout the night and break up their sleep. About 3 million adults, mostly overweight men, are afflicted with sleep apnea. In this disorder, muscles in the upper airway regularly sag and fail to keep the passage open.
The struggle to take in airt can result in snoring that rivals a jackhammer, though sufferers are often oblivious. “A person with apnea might not even be aware that he woke up 500 to 1,000 times last night because the arousals are so brief,” says psychologist Thomas Roth, Chief of Henry Ford Hospital’s Sleep-Disorder Center in Detroit.
Both apnea and myoclonus can be treated, once diagnosed.
By far the most common complaint resulting in lack of sleep is insomnia; About a third of all Americans have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep – problems that result in listlessness and loss of alertness during the day. Most of the time the distress is temporary, brought on by anxiety about a problem at work or a sudden family crisis.
But sometimes sleep difficulties can extend for months and years. Faced with a chronic situation, insomniacs frequently medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs. Doctors warn that in most cases sleeping pills should not be taken for longer than two or three weeks.
Such drugs can lose their effectiveness in time, and it takes larger and larger doses to work. People run the risk of becoming dependent on the pills.
Because so few studies have been done, scientists cannot make definitive comparisons between American sleep patterns and those of other countries.
But many researchers believe that all industrialized nations are experiencing.