Sleep: Young adults, teens skimp on shut-eye
Jackie Head thinks she may be the mother of vampires.
Her two sons, 19 and 21, stayed up all night and slept all day during the recent holidays.
"It's ridiculous. It makes me crazy," Head said of her sons' sleeping patterns. "They don't even start their activities until midnight."
"Yeah, we're vampires," said Brandon Head, 21, of his and brother Brian's sleeping habits. "During the school year, I go to bed at sometimes 2 or 4 and get up at 9. About 2 o'clock, I'm pretty wrecked. It feels good to catch up."
Like Jackie Head of Douglasville, hundreds of parents of high school and college students throughout metro Atlanta scratched their heads in wonder, and worry, at their young adults' and aging teenagers' sleep patterns during the holidays.
Research shows there may be good reason for concern. While the nocturnal habits of teenagers and young adults have driven parents to distraction for years, the off-schedule holiday sleep habits of today's teens — who are up all night and asleep all day for days on end — are another issue altogether.
"No, no, no, [their] normal sleep pattern is not to sleep all day and stay up all night," said Dr. Mary A. Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown Medical School and director of the E.P. Bradley Hospital Sleep and Chronobiology Research Lab in Providence, R.I. "Humans are not inherently nocturnal."
Most likely, the sleeping patterns are symptomatic of severe sleep deprivation, experts said. Intense demands that begin as early as middle school to get into the right school, get the right scholarship, and fulfill parental bragging rights may be wearing out — and burning out — an entire generation.
But also, the sleeping patterns are a product of a culture that does not value sleep and that has introduced enough technological goodies, such as cellphones and computers, to keep even young teenagers eager to stay up all night so they do not "miss out" on any action.
These irregular sleep patterns will not make up for long-term sleep deprivation. Instead, sleep experts suggest that the patterns should be addressed before adolescence, by getting more sleep on a consistent basis, even if that means cutting back on activities and other demands.
"Across the second decade of life, the need for sleep actually increases," said Dr. Gary Freed, professor of pediatrics at Emory University and director of the Pediatric Sleep Lab at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Teenagers need between 9 1/4 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep each night, Freed said. "Lack of sleep is a huge problem."
While people are sleeping, the brain begins a night shift that differs greatly from its day job.
The brain regulates hormones and other body chemicals when the rest of the body is shut down. It does not do this critical regulatory work as well while the rest of the body demands its attention.
For those in adolescence and early adulthood, the consequences of poor regulation may be more serious than for other age groups because their bodies are already in great hormonal flux. Complicate the body's already challenging job during adolescence, and bad things can happen.
'Sleep is a priority'
For example, a University of Chicago study in 2003 showed that the ability of sleep-deprived teens to process glucose declined to the point of diabetics'.
Sleep-deprived teens and early adults may be at even higher risk for illness and accidents, some studies suggest.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 crashes are caused each year by drowsy driving, with those ages 16 to 29 being most at risk.
Sleep deprivation also causes gaps in learning, memory loss, and non-vehicular accidents.
Erica Nichols, 17, a senior at Avondale High School, knows what it feels like to be constantly sleepy. It's one reason she slept until noon and sometimes as late as 2 p.m. during the holidays. With each later waking time, she tended to go to bed later that night — or next morning.
"Usually, you don't get much sleep when school's going on, so you try to catch up," Nichols said. "I've got a limited chance to do that during the school year."
Nichols, who has been accepted into one college so far, said she feels the heat of college admissions competition. She takes advanced placement classes and had assignments over the holidays.
Last week, she was anxious over a test she was to take on a novel she had to read over the holidays.
"It's constant books," she said. "Nonstop books."
Keegan Ross, 18, stayed up late during the holidays to relax, he said. Many of his friends were doing the same. They didn't necessarily go out to party.
Instead, they curled up under a blanket on the sofa or in bed and snuggled with a cellphone.
"A lot of times you stay on the phone, and you lose track of time," said Ross, who graduated from Tucker High in June but is already a sophomore at Fort Valley State University.
"I don't have a problem going to sleep," Ross said. "I just don't want to sleep."
While all-day sleeping may feel like a luxury, it is only a stopgap at best, experts said. And, it can lead to a difficult readjustment to the regular schedule of life and, worse, a long-term sleep disorder.
"The general rule is that you want to keep a regular sleep schedule," said Dr. Beth Malow, director of Vanderbilt University's Sleep Disorder Clinic. "That's how the body synchronizes your biological clock."
Parents should begin modeling good sleep patterns early in a child's life, experts said, by setting firm bedtimes and also by getting enough sleep themselves.
They also should encourage less demanding lifestyles, teaching children to make choices among various activities and social endeavors instead of allowing them to do everything they wish to do.
"Parents want to give their children the opportunity to do everything, to have everything," Carskadon said. "They should be teaching them to make choices so they learn responsibility instead of trying to do everything and then trying to make their lives work. And they need to teach that sleep is a priority as much as anything else."
By VIRGINIA ANDERSON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution