The State of Sleep Deprivation in America

Given current sleep trends, the United States might well be nicknamed, “the land of the sleep deprived.”

By Sheryl Grassie

Our sleep amounts have continued to decline, resulting in a public health epidemic regarding the state of sleep deprivation in America.

The statistics give us a pretty good picture of just how tired we are as a nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 3 three adults don’t get the minimum recommended 7 hours of sleep, essentially one third of our country. In addition, there are now 80 different sleep disorders being treated regularly at sleep clinics all over the United States. A 2013 National Gallup Poll found people were sleeping on average about 6.8 hours a night and an estimated 70 million adults have some form of sleep disorder.

These numbers may not mean much until you understand that sleep deprivation has serious consequences. It is responsible for about 20 percent of all motor vehicle crashes. It is across the board lowering job performance and academic performance from preschool through graduate school. It affects physical health and adds to the rising cost of healthcare. It has a profound effect on mental health increasing your chances of depression and anxiety and further adding to the nationwide mental health crisis. Sleep is so vital to good functioning that to say 30 percent of the population isn’t getting enough sleep is like saying 1 out of every 3 people you pass on the street is struggling to function. Not an optimal way to be living.

We are also spending like crazy trying to solve the problem. Estimates are in the neighborhood of 52 billion dollars, that will be spent on sleep products in 2020. These include sleep apps, sleep sensors, better mattresses, white noise machines, aromatherapy diffusers, sleep medications, books on sleep, and sleep aids like pillows, eye covers, room darkening curtains and more. Sleep remedies have become a big business in the United States in response to the growing epidemic of sleep deprived individuals.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation refers to sleeping less than you need for adequate functioning. This generally means less than 7 hours a night, the minimum recommendation. People with sleep deprivation experience consequences the following day like fatigue or the need for short daytime sleeps. They lose concentration, are at greater risk for accidents, and experience lowered immune function.

Sleep deprivation, when it happens on a regular basis, is referred to as sleep debt; the accumulation of missed hours is banked in a health deficit. Longer term sleep deprivation or sleep debt can equate to all kinds of fairly serious health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Sleep deprivation can also affect moods, cause anxiety and depression, lower cognitive functioning, and affect sex drive.

What Is Happening with Sleep in America?

Although there is evidence that prehistoric man may have slept less than 6 hours, and probably needed to in order to survive, for several thousand years or more prior to the current era, humans routinely slept in two shifts of roughly the same length that totaled between 8 and 10 hours. As far back as ancient Rome, there is documentation of this bilateral sleeping pattern and evidence of a first 4-hour sleep followed by a second of up to 6 hours.

Without artificial lighting, people went to bed when the sun set and then woke in the middle of the night and were for up for anywhere from one to several hours engaged in various activities, then they returned to bed for their second sleep. By the beginning of the 1700’s this pattern began to change. By the end of the 1700’s and into the early 1800’s, the industrial revolution and indoor gas lighting altered work schedules and bedtimes, and the nation shifted to longer workdays and a singular sleep pattern.

Although people weren’t necessarily going to bed with the sun or sleeping in shifts, they were getting adequate hours of sleep. In 1910, the average person was sleeping around 9 hours a night all in one stretch. This is the upper end of the National Sleep Foundations’ recommended 7 to 9 hours nightly. So, when did we start getting so sleep deprived?

If we jump to just a few decades later, to 1942 and WWII, Americans were sleeping for almost an hour less nightly, or roughly 8 hours. By the end of the twentieth century things were declining further and an entire field of sleep medicine had been ushered in. By 2013, the average nightly sleep has dropped to 6.8 hours, and if we fast forward another 5 years, to 2018, a large consumer sleep study found averages down to around six hours, 5 hrs. 45 minutes for men, and 6 hours 9 minutes for women.

What Is Causing this Change?

Needless to say, researchers are looking at numerous variables that have precipitated Americans getting less and less sleep. Electrical lighting, changing work schedules, our 24/7 work and life culture, are all contributing to loss of sleep. In recent decades, blue light from screens, lack of exercise, stress, poor diets, and the constant pressure to get ahead are all cited as factors in pervasive cultural sleep deprivation.

The State of Sleep Deprivation in America at Present

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track behavioral health risks of which sleep deprivation is one. They graph the entire United States based on sleep deprivation and rank states. The current rankings have the eastern part of the United States more sleep deprived than the Midwest and Western states with the exception of Hawaii, which came in #1 for sleep deprived states.

What can we learn from looking at Hawaii that might help us understand what is causing all this sleep deprivation? In general, a higher cost of living and congestion translates into many people in Hawaii having multiple jobs, enduring longer commutes, and experiencing more stress. Hawaii seems to encapsulate what is happening across the country but in a concentrated way. In general, our sleep deprived state seems to be the result of societal pressures and lifestyle variables.


What can we do about the state of sleep deprivation in America? If you are one of the 70 million people experiencing sleep deprivation from insomnia, sleep apnea, or any of the long list of possible sleep disorders, there is help. Sleep experts are understanding more and more about how sleep works and offering solutions under the umbrella of sleep medicine and hygiene. There are sleep clinics, sleep testing in the form of sleep studies, and lifestyle interventions that can substantially improve sleep. Don’t hesitate to get help, because our modern lifestyles aren’t going away and sleep is crucial for good health and good functioning.

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