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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 01:01 am

Weary women

Experts say sleep deprivation approaches epidemic levels.

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Untitled Document All that Harjinder Sandhu wanted was more time with her children.
To make more daytime hours for them, this 39-year-old mother of three worked nights as a nurse at a convalescent center several miles from her home in Stanton, Calif. Finishing her shift at dawn, she was sometimes too tired to drive home and asked her husband to pick her up after work. But on a September morning last year, Sandhu fell asleep at the wheel, veered into a light pole, and was killed instantly. Sandhu’s accident is one of more than 100,000 caused annually by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, according to data from the Washington, D.C.-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, 45 percent of U.S. women are guilty of driving while drowsy, according to the Washington-based National Sleep Foundation. Sleep experts say mounting evidence indicates that American women are suffering from a lack of solid sleep. In recent years, repeated studies have found that although women average eight to 13 more minutes of sleep per night than men, the quality of women’s sleep is much poorer. “Everyone expects women to be caregivers, and this is making them lose precious sleep,” says Dr. Joyce Walsleben, former director of the New York University School of Medicine Sleep Disorders Center. “Women’s lack of sleep has become a societal crisis bordering on a national health epidemic.”
Forty percent of American adults — more than half of them women — have occasional difficulty sleeping, and 15 percent suffer from insomnia, defined as difficulty sleeping that causes significant impairment or stress, according to the National Institutes of Health. A 2002 poll by the National Sleep Foundation showed that women are more likely to have symptoms of insomnia than men are (63 vs. 54 percent) and to suffer more daytime sleepiness (20 vs. 13 percent). A 2004 poll by the Better Sleep Council, in Alexandria, Va., found 26 percent of women have trouble sleeping at least once a week, compared with 16 percent of men. Though 45 percent of women say they feel most refreshed after a good night’s rest, only 16 percent are likely to sleep more to improve their well-being.
Why do women have more interrupted sleep than men do? Health experts say that biological and sociological factors are both to blame. Research by the National Sleep Foundation indicates that physical processes unique to women often result in sleep deprivation. During menstruation, a significant number of women have difficulty sleeping because of tender breasts (36 percent), headaches (28 percent), and cramps (28 percent). During pregnancy, nearly 80 percent of women have sleep problems. During menopause, 40 percent have interrupted sleep, most frequently as a result of hot flashes. “In many of these cases, the problem is tied to hormonal fluctuations,” says NYU’s Walsleben. “Decreases in estrogen and progesterone before the menstrual cycle can cause sleep deprivation, and after menopause the drop in estrogen can have the same effect.”
Researchers say women may also suffer from sleep disturbances because child-rearing has programmed them to doze lightly.
A 2003 study from Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey, Pa., indicated that women function better under sleep deprivation than do men, possibly their way of adapting to the “profound demands of infant and child care placed on them for most of mankind’s history.” A 2002 study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that a baby’s cries wake a woman sooner than they do a man. On top of these physical differences come psychological ones. In waking life, say sociologists, women tend to take more responsibility for household issues than men do. In the recent Better Sleep Council survey, women said the that No. 1 factor keeping them up nights was family worries. In waking life, women earn 76 cents to the dollar earned by men, reports the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the recent sleep survey, women’s No. 2 reason for losing sleep was worry over financial issues. The Better Sleep Foundation also reports that women are less likely than men to say that they never lose sleep because of stress (30 vs. 41 percent). Sleep experts say that though it may be normal for women have more interrupted sleep than men, it’s dangerous for them to continue averaging an hour-and-a-half less sleep than they need. In recent years, a flurry of studies have shown that short-term sleep deprivation can lower a woman’s glucose tolerance, increase her blood pressure, interfere with her ability to concentrate, and contribute to excess drinking, even during pregnancy. A 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that long-term sleep deprivation can boost a woman’s risk for coronary heart disease and that women who get five hours of sleep a night are 40 percent more likely to have heart problems than those who sleep eight hours. Health experts say poor sleep may help explain why women are more likely to pack on extra pounds than men are. In 2004, researchers at Columbia University in New York found that people who sleep two to four hours are 73 percent more likely to be obese than those who sleep eight hours and that those who sleep five hours are 50 percent more likely to be obese. Authorities say a lack of sleep may also help explain women’s increased risk for depression, which, the National Institutes of Health reports, is twice as common in women as men. “The link between insomnia and depression is complex,” said Dr. Rachel Manber, director of the insomnia program at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. “It most likely goes in both directions, with each one affecting and contributing to the other.”
Sleep experts estimate that our national sleep deficit costs Americans $100 billion annually in lost productivity, medical expenses, and property damage. “Telling women to keep regular hours and establish a sleep pattern is important,” says Walsleben, “but to really help women we need to address the larger issues that keep them up nights. Women need more money for their work. They need more stable home lives. Just as women need to make sleep a priority, society needs to make women a priority so they can finally get the rest they deserve.”
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