U.S. Teen-Agers Need More Rest,
Researchers Say

by Marc Kaufman
The Washington Post
September 22, 1999


WASHINGTON -- American teen-agers are getting far less sleep than they need, and their health, behavior and academic performance are suffering as a result.

This conclusion represents the evolving consensus of many sleep researchers.

There is a growing body of research on teen-age sleep deficits. The most pressing policy implications involve high school starting times -- whether it makes biological and psychological sense to bring middle and late teens into school as dawn is just breaking.

Sleep experts feel really strongly that high school timings are out of sync with the natural circadian rhythms of adolescents.

Recent research into adolescent sleep patterns has consistently shown that most middle and late teens need nine hours of sleep, yet for biological reasons during this time in their lives they generally cannot go to sleep earlier than 11 p.m. With most high school starting times in the 7:15 to 7:45 a.m. range - as contrasted with starting times 30 minutes to an hour later a generation ago - the problem is obvious. Researchers say they have been frustrated by the limited public response to their findings.

"Since the amount of sleep a student gets correlates strongly with academic performance and social behavior, it's important for high schools to have later start times," said William Dement, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Stanford University. Dement has been studying sleep and sleep disorders for 48 years.

"There is by now a huge reservoir of knowledge about the sleep patterns and needs of adolescents, but it's been dammed up by public ignorance and bureaucracy," he said.

Research by Mary Carskadon, director of Brown University's Chronobiology and Sleep Research Laboratory has shown that circadian rhythms of teen-agers are geared toward a later sleep time and later waking time than adults or younger children. These rhythms include the release of chemicals that encourage alertness or sleep. To her surprise, she found that half of those 10th graders who were awakened for a 7:20 a.m. starting time showed brain patterns similar to those in patients with the sleep disorder narcolepsy.

"Basically, the brains of many of these kids were closer to being asleep than to being awake," said Carskadon. "They had a large sleep debt, but were otherwise normal teen-agers."

Researchers say they disagree with the common belief that teen-agers don't go to sleep earlier because they are rebellious, because they're watching television or using the Internet, or otherwise deciding to stay up late.

"Some people just can't accept the fact that many teen-agers are simply unable to fall asleep much before 11," said Dement. "And there are certainly others who say we are trying to coddle adolescents or make excuses for their laziness. Our response is that research shows that adolescents need about nine hours of sleep, just like younger children, and that there are inevitable consequences if they don't get it week after week.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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