Insufficient Sleep Can Be Deadly

By: Robert Kowatch, MD, PhD
As seen on Nationwide Children's Hospital's 700 Childrens® Blog

It was about 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve when Jakob Murphy fell asleep at the wheel of his SUV, crashed into a telephone pole, and was killed instantly. He was 24 years old.

Murphy was a strapping, redheaded college football player at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. “Jake” worked at a local tavern during the offseason and was a hard worker. He was on his way home to his family — just three miles away – on the night of his tragic accident.

After hearing Jakob’s story, Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga helped the Murphy family to cope with their loss with a powerful game-day gesture .

Jakob Murphy’s untimely death is a sad reminder that many adolescents and young adults are chronically sleep deprived and insufficient sleep can have tragic outcomes.

The Facts About Insufficient Sleep and Motor Vehicle Accidents Are Troubling

  • Teen drivers who sleep less than eight hours per night are one-third more likely to be in an accident than those who sleep eight or more hours nightly.
  • Drivers under the age of 25 cause the majority of fatigue-related car crashes.
  • Drowsiness is similar to alcohol in how it compromises driving ability in that it reduces alertness and attentiveness, delays reaction times, and hinders decision-making skills.

One of the main purposes of sleep is that it is restorative for both the brain and the body. Adolescents actually need more sleep than adults but often get less. Even with more than nine hours of sleep a night, many adolescents still feel tired the next day.

This problem has gotten worse in recent years as adolescents are pushed to delay bedtimes with homework and after-school activities while high school start times have been made earlier.

Researchers at Brown University analyzed a poll of sleep patterns in adolescents from a National Sleep Foundation survey completed in 2006. This data revealed that as adolescents advance by grade, they are getting less sleep on both school nights and weekends. Many adolescents reported sleeping seven hours or less on weeknights rather than the eight or nine hours they need to be alert during the day.

teen sleeping

What Parents Can Do

  • Lobby your schools for later start times for high school students – this has been an effective solution in several school systems.
  • Encourage your adolescents to get to bed by 10 p.m. on school nights and allow them to sleep in an additional two to three hours on the weekends.

What Adolescents Can Do

  • Develop regular sleep habits; this means keeping a regular sleep and wake time, sleeping as much as needed to feel refreshed the following day, but not spending more time in bed than needed.
  • Try to get 8-10 hours of sleep every night.
  • If necessary, catch up on your sleep on the weekends or take naps during the week. Limit your naps to an hour per day and don’t sleep in past 10-11 a.m. on the weekends.
  • Sleep in a cool environment.
  • Turn off music, the Internet, and televisions to help reset the body clock.
  • Do not read, write, eat, watch TV, talk on the phone, or text in bed. Treat your bedroom like a cave where all you want to do is sleep.

Featured Expert

Robert Kowatch, MD, PhD
Pulmonary Medicine

Dr. Robert Kowatch is Professor of Psychiatry in the Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice at the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Dr. Kowatch has authored or co-authored more than 60 articles, 14 book chapters and two books. He has published in the areas of the diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents with bipolar disorders, sleep disorders and depression. His articles have been published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Neuropsychopharmacology, Archives of General Psychiatry and Journal of Child Neurology, among others. His clinical and research interests are in the biology and treatment of pediatric mood disorders.

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