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Sleep: The Connection Between Sleep and Good Health

Although people often say they need "beauty rest," science shows sleep is important to a lot more than appearance. Research shows that inadequate sleep can increase the risk of a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.

There is also a strong connection between sleep and weight gain. Adults who sleep fewer than 7 hours a night are more likely to be overweight. Meanwhile, children who don't get enough sleep are at higher risk for childhood obesity and more likely to be overweight in adulthood.

Too little sleep also takes a toll on alertness and decision making. Studies suggest that people who do not get enough sleep don't perform as well on mental tasks as those who get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep can make it hard to keep up at work or school, and things can turn downright deadly if a sleep-deprived person gets behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver fatigue results in an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year.

Despite the clear link between sleep and good health, many people struggle to get the recommended number of hours. Up to 70 million Americans experience occasional sleep problems, while 40 million struggle with chronic sleep problems. For some people, medical conditions such as stroke, dementia, chronic pain, cancer and mental health disorders make it difficult to sleep. For others, medication to treat health conditions can lead to sleeplessness. And for some people, a diagnosable sleep disorder makes it hard to get the recommended amount of sleep.

A sleep disorder is a condition that interferes with a person's ability to sleep or feel rested. There are an estimated 70 different sleep disorders.

  • Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. People with insomnia have trouble falling or staying asleep, or both. Insomnia that lasts four weeks or longer is considered chronic insomnia. Surveys vary, but approximately 40 percent of adults report occasional insomnia, while 10 percent to 15 percent of adults have chronic insomnia. Stress, anxiety, depression, pain, too much caffeine and change in work schedules and many other factors can all lead to insomnia.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea affects about 18 million American adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In obstructive sleep apnea, people stop breathing for short periods of time throughout the night because the muscles in the upper throat relax and block the airway during sleep. Sleep apnea leads to disturbed and constantly interrupted sleep. As a result, people with the disorder may not feel rested upon waking and can be sleepy during the day.
  • Restless leg syndrome is a neurologic disorder that causes an unpleasant feeling or twitching in the legs, leading to a strong urge to move the legs. It can occur during sleep, disrupting sleep and leading to daytime sleepiness.

Most sleep disorders can be successfully treated with medication, lifestyle changes or breathing devices, as in the case of sleep apnea. Sleep problems that last more than four weeks should be discussed with a healthcare provider. Occasional sleep problems and sleeplessness that do not have an underlying medical cause can usually be handled by making some simple changes in a person's bedtime routine.

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