Saturday, August 11, 2012

No Good Night

Some mornings I wake up early and am the first to slip into the bathroom to get ready for the day. Other times it's my wife's alarm clock that rings, and so she is up and about before I am. In either case, we each have our own morning routines, and generally don't interact right away. But sooner rather than later, when we cross paths, almost always the first thing we ask each other after we say "good morning" is the simple question: "how did you sleep?"

These days the answer is almost always "lousy." Unlike when we were younger and would put out heads down on a pillow and wake up 8 hours later, our nights are more fits and starts. More specifically, they tend to be a series of catnaps connected by trips to the bathroom, staring at the ceiling or working our way through a mental checklist of things to do the next day. We chalk it up to age or diet, to staying up too late or going to bed too early. Maybe it's because we exercised too much; maybe it's because we moved around too little. But the truth is we have no idea why one night we sleep better and the next worse, though it's mostly worse.

If there's any comforting fact it's that we're not alone: studies show that nearly 20% of people in the country experience some form of insomnia on a regular basis. And it turns out that we have company on a much broader scale. In fact, whether you count sheep in Swahili or Bengali, you are part of what some scientists are calling an emerging global epidemic.  In a recently released study in SLEEP, the official publication of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, researchers say that sleep disturbances may indeed represent a "significant and unrecognized public health issue among older people, especially women" in both rural and urban areas. (Of course, when your field of study is sleep, everything tends to look like a nap not taken, but that's another story altogether).

The study included community wide samples in 8 countries across Asia and Africa, and surveyed 24,434 women and 19,501 men age 50 years and older. It seems that no matter where you are in the globe, if you are getting older, you aren't having sweet dreams. True, some demographic groups fared worse than others: according to the researchers, "there was a consistent pattern of higher prevalence of sleep problems in women and older age groups. Additionally, lower education, not living in partnership, and poorer self-rated quality of life were consistently associated with higher prevalence of sleep problems."

There were a few bright spots on the globe, where a good night's sleep is more the norm than the exception. In India, 6.5% of women and 4.3% of men reported sleep problems, while in Indonesia the numbers are even lower: just 4.6% of women and 3.9% percent of men said they lay awake at night. At the other end of the scale was Bangladesh, where nearly half the women (43.9%) and nearly a quarter of the men (23.6%) reported sleep problems. Since Bangladesh eventually sprung from the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, one could wonder if that division was based not on who was Hindu and who was Muslim, but rather who was awake at night to make the trek.

All of this belies the accepted wisdom that our 24-hour, internet-driven, always-connected lifestyle is what's keeping us up. After all, it's hard to make the same case for the rural populations of Ghana, Tanzania and Vietnam, to name just three of the other countries that were part of the study. Yet, sample populations in each of those locales reported various elevated levels of insomnia, more akin to those seen in Chicago or Dallas. And while it's certainly possible that a large number of 55-year-old women in Thủ Dầu Mộ,, a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, can't sleep because they're strung out over the latest firmware update to their iPhones, it's probably not likely.

Still, there is the thought that misery loves company. A comedian once remarked that we might feel more comfortable if we took all the people who walk around New York talking to themselves, and paired them up so they could at least look they're having a conversation. In that vein, should you find yourself lying in bed at 3AM, sign onto Skype and look for someone to chat with in Bolivia or Peru: bet they can't sleep either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford sleeps when he can, because he doesn't sleep when he should. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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