The explosion of java joints across the country may be attributable to more than clever marketers enticing consumers to pay big bucks for froth and foam. It may be a matter of survival. While Canadians consumed 225 million pounds–14 billion cups–of coffee in 1995, they downed 250 million pounds in 1998, an increase of one billion cups of the heart-accelerating, eyelid-propping high-test, according to the Toronto-based Coffee Association of Canada. The caffeine addiction, experts say, points to a society of incessance and a nation of workaholics.
Just how sleep-deprived North Americans have become is quantified in a study released March 28 by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C. Although experts recommend adults sleep at least eight hours a night, the poll found that, on average, adults sleep less than seven hours during the workweek and a full 45% say they sleep less in order to accomplish more. This leads to sleepiness in the workplace: one in five employees report making occasional or frequent work errors due to sleepiness, 50% admit sleepiness interferes with quantity of work, 40% with quality of work. Young adults, 18 to 29 years old, admit to staying up too late to watch TV or surf the Internet, 33% to suffering from significant daytime sleepiness (as compared to 29% of shift workers) and 13% report falling asleep at work.
Drowsy driving has been estimated to be responsible for more than 40% of total traffic accidents recorded. In Canada that would account for 62,848 collisions in 1998, and a large percentage of the 2,927 fatalities. In the NSF study, an outrageous 24% of young adults report they had dozed off at the wheel during the past year. Although safety experts recommend stopping to sleep when drowsy, only 22% of drivers do so; 63% turn instead to caffeine.
Sleep deficit played a role in the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the grounding of the oil carrier Exxon Valdez in Alaska when the third mate fell asleep on his feet, as well as several space shuttle accidents, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Stanley Coren. In his book, Sleep Thieves, Professor Coren documents the events of December 1985 at the Keanedy Space Center when a console operator monitoring the final five minutes of countdown for a space shuttle launch misinterpreted computer information and pressed a button dumping 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen from the fuel tanks. “The operators, apparently suffering from sleep debt, were still too foggy to understand what was happening and did not immediately respond,” Prof. Coren reports. “It was not until a mere 31 seconds before lift-off that the launch was finally stopped.” An investigation found the major cause of the problem to be console operator fatigue.
A month later the entire crew of the Challenger was killed when an O-ring seal failed, an event for which adequate advance warning was available. At the final teleconference the evening before the launch, however, that information went unnoticed by 13 key managers, most of whom had been working 10- to 12-hour shifts for up to 18 days in a row. The investigating presidential commission attributed blame to severe sleep debt.
Though the instances are less spectacular, for the general population the costs of sleep deprivation include lost lives, lost income, disability, accidents and family dysfunction. The NSF estimates that family violence would decrease 30% if family members received one extra hour of sleep a night. A range of sleep disorders and disturbances affect as many as one-third of all adults, the vast majority undiagnosed and untreated. One of the most severe and frequent, affecting 10% of men and 4% of women, is sleep apnea, in which breathing actually stops for a short period of time when air passages are blocked by soft tissue.
Calgary oilman Dick Walker, for example, spent years falling asleep at the wheel of his car and in meetings until his wife suggested his breathing might be stopping at night. Tests at Foothills Hospital a year ago revealed he was awakening 63 times an hour when, as Mr. Walker explains it, “My brain was saying, ‘Hey, stupid, wake up and breathe!”‘ He says the first night he wore the assigned “long snorkel and mask,” he awoke the next day “almost in a stupor because I slept so deeply,” and he said, “What just happened? The night disappeared.” He has worn the mask ever since and reports, “Now I stay awake through meetings no matter how boring. Maybe that’s not a good thing.”
For most people, however, the fuzzy thinking, accidents and illnesses which attend lack of sleep are theirs by choice. “Our Western society is chronically sleep-deprived because it is so obsessed with obtaining knowledge, information, status and money that people are driving themselves to stay awake 24 hours a day,” states Dr. Chuck Samuels of the Canadian Sleep Institute in Calgary. “We all want to be Bill Gates and we’ve completely lost touch with what a human being can achieve. Computers have made it possible to work 24 hours a day, so we do it.” Dr. Samuels points out that humans can become accommodated to fatigue to the point they have no awareness of it. “We’re driving ourselves into the ground and we’re training our teenagers to get jobs mid-week and not sleep because they see their parents working like dogs. We have to ask, ‘What are we doing to ourselves and what are we doing to our culture?'”
Dr. Ron Cridland, a private practitioner at Chestermere Lake east of Clagary, became interested in sleep when he discovered it was the “missing link” among 70% of those consulting a doctor. “Sleep is when your healing occurs,” he says. “If you’re sick, you’re not recharging your batteries. People have to start by giving sleep the respect it deserves and budgeting time for it. It sounds so basic, but we must learn to create sustainable lifestyles.