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Wellness programs should address sleep disorders


As employers review their wellness programs, they should consider addressing a problem suffered by millions of Americans that is contributing to health disorders, weight gain, lost productivity and motor vehicle accidents.

About 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems. Among them, nearly 60% have a chronic disorder, adding an estimated $15.9 billion to the nation's health care tab, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research.

While sleep deprivation has been known to reduce performance and alertness, it also is being increasingly associated with numerous serious medical conditions, including hypertension, diabetes and depression. In fact, people who experience chronic sleep disturbance could face an earlier onset of dementia and Alzheimer's, according to a recent study by Temple University in Philadelphia.

Sleep deprivation also may be contributing to our nation's obesity epidemic. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found that when people are deprived of sleep for just one night, they crave junk food because they experience a sharp reduction in activity in the frontal cortex, a higher-level part of the brain where consequences are weighed and rational decisions are made.

There is little doubt that sleep deprivation increases the risk of traffic accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving is responsible for at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities each year. Aside from falling asleep behind the wheel, the inattentiveness and loss of concentration that can occur from sleep loss may lead to a level of impairment equivalent to being legally drunk.

The truck driver who plowed into the car carrying comedian Tracy Morgan last June apparently hadn't slept for 24 hours prior to the accident, according to court papers charging the driver, who worked for Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with vehicular homicide and injury by automobile. Mr. Morgan suffered serious injuries, and fellow passenger James McNair, known as comedian Jimmy Mack, died in the crash.

In certain circumstances, chronic sleep deprivation may actually lead to premature death, such as for sufferers of fatal familial insomnia, a rare genetic disorder that causes fragmented and disrupted sleep to the point where the affected person is unable to sleep at all.

When I was a teenager, in the days before “snooze buttons” on alarm clocks, I used to beg my dad to “please let me sleep for 10 more minutes” each morning when he woke me to get ready for school.

“You'll sleep enough when you're dead,” he'd bark back, sometimes pulling me out of bed by my toes.

Well, my dad was right. He's been “sleeping” for 24 years now, after dying — perhaps not coincidentally — in his sleep in 1990 at the age of 59.

When's the last time you had a good night's rest?