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Pediatricians: Middle And High School Should Start No Earlier Than 8:30 AM

(eltpics/Flickr via Compfight)

(eltpics/Flickr via Compfight)

It’s one of the great joys of early parenthood: Finally being able to sleep until a reasonable hour — say, 6 a.m. Then, before you know it, you’re facing the opposite problem: Homeroom is just half an hour away, and your tween or teen remains an immovable lump beneath the covers.

As any parent who’s observed it would suspect, this is deep biology at work. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics issues both an up-to-date explanation of research on adolescent sleep and a ringing call to the country’s schools to heed it and begin school later for “pathologically sleepy” older students. Sleep deprivation in youth is a common — “and easily fixable” — public health issue, the academy says in a policy statement.

From the press release, whose headline begins “Let Them Sleep:”

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” [statement lead author Dr. Judith] Owens said. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

Many studies have documented that the average adolescent in the U.S. is chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

This medical stance on sleep deprivation is not new; the research has been accumulating for many years. But the academy reports that about 40 percent of American high schools still start before 8 a.m., and only 15 percent launch the school-day at or after 8:30. Among middle schools, it says, more than one-fifth begin at 7:45 or earlier.

If schools are not shifting later as fast as pediatricians might like, that could be because, like virtually everything in education, it’s not as simple as it might seem.

‘Life is going on right now in hyperspeed for most of our young people.’

“Once you go deeper into the lives of kids today, things become more complex,” says Dr. Bob Weintraub, who was the headmaster of Brookline High School from 1992 to 2011 and is now a professor of educational leadership at Boston University. Based on the research, Brookline High shifted start times for most students to 8:30 during his tenure, he said, but such shifts do raise issues.

“One of the practical problems has always been for high school athletics and school activities,” he said; if school ends later, sports and other activities must start later, and outdoor sports are hindered when darkness descends. Continue reading

Pop Awake At Night? Researchers Blame ‘Sleep Switch’ In Your Aging Brain

(eflon via Compflight)

(eflon via Compflight)

If you’re on the older side and find yourself popping hideously awake in the middle of the night or far-too-early morn, here’s your line for the next time it happens: “Oh, that darned ventrolateral preoptic nucleus of mine! How I miss my old galanin!”

Researchers have just reported in the journal Brain that they’ve found a group of neurons — in the aforementioned nucleus — that function as a kind of “sleep switch,” and whose degeneration over the years is looking very much like the cause of age-related sleep loss. It’s also looking pivotal in the insomnia that often causes nocturnal wandering in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is the first time that anyone has ever been able to show in humans that there is a distinct group of nerve cells in the brain that’s critical for allowing you to sleep,” said the paper’s senior author, Dr. Clifford Saper, chair of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

You may well be wondering exhaustedly how soon this insight — based on the post-mortem analysis of 45 human brains — will lead to better sleeping pills for older folks. I asked Dr. Saper that, too. No promises with timeframes at this point, but he does see the prospect for better-targeted sleeping pills for seniors, with fewer side effects like Ambien’s balance-related problems.

Our conversation, lightly edited:

Can this group of neurons actually explain the lion’s share of sleep problems that older people and people with Alzheimer’s disease have?

It really can. Let me give you a little background. We discovered this cell group in the brains of rats in 1996. We found that there’s a group of of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that fire when animals are asleep. And we later found that if you eliminate those nerve cells, that animals lose up to 50 percent of all their sleep time, and the remaining sleep is fragmented. They can’t sleep for long bouts at a time; they keep waking up all the time.

At that time, we weren’t sure whether this would be the same in other species. So we looked at the brains of half a dozen other species — of mice and cats and monkeys — and we found that all of them have this cell group and that the cells were active during sleep in all of them. In every species we looked at, this same cell group had a particular neurotransmitter in it, called galanin.

I’ve never heard of that neurotransmitter before… Continue reading

The Migraine-Body Clock Connection: New Genetic Clues

migraine

Wikimedia Commons

If you’re one of the 36 million Americans who suffer from migraine headaches, you probably already know that if your sleep routine is thrown off, you’re asking for head-whanging trouble.

New research suggests that the migraine-sleep connection goes far deeper than that, and revolves around the brain’s hypothalamus, which helps control our body clocks among other functions.

The Dana Foundation, which supports brain research, has just posted an intriguing scientific yarn about how insights gained from a family of extreme “morning larks” — as in, up at 4:30 every morning, asleep by 7:30 at night — may help point to a better understanding of migraine that could lead to better treatments. Read the full story here. The crux:

The spark of insight that brought the two fields together occurred recently when migraine researcher Robert Shapiro realized that his patient, who was seeing him for migraine with aura, was a member of an extended Vermont family of extreme morning larks. Continue reading

Study: Insomnia Linked To Heart Disease Deaths In Men

New research says anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs can increase the risk of death

As if it weren’t bad enough that insomnia in and of itself can be torture. New research just out in the journal Circulation suggests that insomnia may increase a man’s chances of dying from heart disease — though just modestly.

The study adds yet another incentive for the estimated one-third of Americans who suffer from insomnia to work on sleeping better. It comes on the heels of other findings that curing your insomnia could double your chances of recovery from depression.

From the Brigham and Women’s Hospital press release on the Circulation study:

“Insomnia is a common health issue, particularly in older adults, but the link between this common sleep disorder and its impact on the risk of death has been unclear,” said Yanping Li, PhD, a research fellow in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at BWH and lead author of the paper. “Our research shows that among men who experience specific symptoms of insomnia, there is a modest increase risk in death from cardiovascular-related issues.”

Specifically, researchers report that difficulty falling sleep and non-restorative sleep were both associated with a higher risk of mortality, particularly mortality related to cardiovascular disease.

Researchers followed more than 23,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study who self-reported insomnia symptoms for a period of six years. Beginning in 2004 through 2010, researchers documented 2025 deaths using information from government and family sources. After adjusting for lifestyle factors, age and other chronic conditions, researchers found that men who reported difficulty initiating sleep and non-restorative sleep had a 55 percent and 32 percent increased risk of CVD-related mortality over the six year follow up, respectively, when compared to men who did not report these insomnia-related symptoms.

Why To Sleep Tonight: So You Don’t Strangle Your Spouse

I can personally vouch for this research finding: lack of sleep can turn a little spat with your spouse into a major emotional war.

According to a new study that asks the question, “Do Sleepless Nights Mean Worse Fights?” by researchers at U.C. Berkeley, couples who get a bad night’s sleep tend to fight more about their relationship. Psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen conclude that without sleep, couples have a harder time managing conflict. The study was published online in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Janesdead/flickr

Janesdead/flickr

I can remember falling to the ground into a weepy ball during one exhaustion-fueled fight with my husband when our daughter was an infant. Indeed, everything seems much more bleak, and your partner seems far less sympathetic, at 3:30 am. Conflict-resolution skills go out the window.

Even without young children, I know loving couples who sleep apart as a way to keep their marriages in tact.

Here’s more on the Berkeley study from the news release:

Researchers collected data on the sleep habits of more than 100 couples who had been together, on average, for nearly two years. They gauged participants for depression, anxiety and other stressors in order to focus solely on the link between the couples’ sleep quality and relationship conflicts.

In one experiment, 78 young adults in romantic relationships provided daily reports over a two-week period about their sleep quality and relationship stresses. Overall, participants reported more discord with their partners on the days following a bad night’s sleep. Continue reading

Health Of The Nation: Obesity Up, But ‘Notable’ Decline In Physical Inactivity

In our house, when there’s good news and bad news, we usually start with the good. So here goes:

According to a new national health statistics report out today analyzing five key health behaviors among U.S. adults — sufficient sleep, smoking, drinking, obesity, and physical activity — there are several bright spots. For instance, the survey found that fewer young people (18-24) are smoking and the number of adults who report they’re completely aerobically inactive showed ‘notable’ declines in recent years, from 39.7% inactive between 2005-2007 to 33.9% in the years 2008-2010.

O.K., now the bad news: Heavy drinking has increased, except among the senior set over 75, smoking prevalence remains virtually unchanged (beyond the youngsters) and obesity is up.

girlsrunning

My first reaction is: Huh? Is anyone out there listening to Michelle Obama and all those other Get-Out-There-And-Move and Cut-The-Sugar advocates?

But then I talked to Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine and an assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, who insisted on highlighting the positive.

A little background: Dr. Phillips’ focus is on physical activity, the link between health and exercise and on educating physicians about how to more seamlessly incorporate physical activity into the practice of medicine.

His takeaway from the CDC report is this: “People are starting to move.” Continue reading

Childhood Obesity Magic Bullet? More Sleep

As parents and policy makers agonize over how to combat childhood obesity, a report in the journal Pediatrics last week suggests at least one quick, simple fix: more sleep.
sleeping teen

The study, which involved surveying more than 1,400 adolescents from suburban Phladelphia high schools, found that each additional hour of sleep was associated with a decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI). And, the association between more sleep and lower BMI was most pronounced in the “upper tail” of the BMI disribution, the study found.

The report concludes: “Increasing sleep among adolescents, especially those in the upper half of the BMI distribution, may help prevent overweight and obesity.” Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: So You Can Sleep Tonight

It’s something that everyone who has suffered from insomnia or been summoned hourly by the hungry cries of a newborn baby knows: sleep is critical for sanity, physical health and proper brain functioning. Without it, you’re sunk.

And here’s a pretty easy way to get it: just go out (or stay in) and exercise — now.

RelaxingMusic/flickr

RelaxingMusic/flickr

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 Sleep in America Poll found “a compelling” link between exercise and better sleep — and folks didn’t have to work out much to reap the benefits.

According to the poll of 1,000 adults between 23 and 60 years old:

Self-described exercisers report better sleep than self-described non-exercisers even though they say they sleep the same amount each night (6 hours and 51 minutes, average on weeknights). Vigorous, moderate and light exercisers are significantly more likely to say “I had a good night’s sleep” every night or almost every night on work nights than non-exercisers (67%-56% vs. 39%). Also, more than three-fourths of exercisers (76%-83%) say their sleep quality was very good or fairly good in the past two weeks, compared to slightly more than one-half of non-exercisers (56%).

Of course, self-reporting is always tricky, and it is possible that the good sleepers just felt more compelled to exercise, rather than the other way around, but still, the link between exercise and better quality sleep just makes intuitive sense (for what that’s worth).

Among poll respondents, more intense exercise tended to be better and those who didn’t exercise at all seemed to suffer most from sleep problems. Continue reading

More Reason To Sleep On It: Sorting Out The Brain’s ‘Inbox’

sleepingkid

Imagine you’re cleaning off your desk. You sort some papers into folders with the relevant labels. Others you red-tag as “urgent” or yellow-tag as “semi-urgent.” Quite a few go directly into the large circular file at your feet, also known as the trash basket.

Turns out, it seems that your brain does something very similar with your memories every night as you sleep.

The journal Nature Neuroscience has just published a special issue on memory, and among its authors is Dr. Robert Stickgold of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, a leading researcher on the role that sleep plays in consolidating memories.

In the past, my layperson’s take-home message from his complex research might have been, “Sleep helps strengthen memories. So if it’s the night before an exam and you have the option of cramming more or sleeping, better to sleep.”

But there’s ever so much more to know, and for researchers to find out — about sleep states beyond REM, about how our brains “tag” some memories for retention and dump others, about how sleep can improve performance overnight — even about why toddlers so desperately need naps.

Our conversation, lightly edited:

You’ve written a sweeping review of years of recent research on what sleep does to memories. How would you sum up for a lay audience what we now know?

I’d start by telling them a true story, which is that about 50 years ago, my father commented to me that when he was in law school studying for an exam, he would stay up late at night reading case after case, and go to sleep with a complete mishmash of cases in his mind. When he woke up the next morning, they had just all been filed away in the right spot. That was 50 years ago, and I can now say, ‘Yes, and now we have an idea how.’

It really does happen while you sleep, and although some of it can happen while you’re awake, especially if you’re consciously working at it, sleep seems to be a time that’s been set aside to make sure that filing gets done, even without your awareness or intent.

So sleep is a time of sorting and discarding memories?

Sleep is doing about five things. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today From Oprah’s Trainer: Nurture Yourself Every Day

Trainer and author Bob Greene

Trainer and author Bob Greene

Bob Greene, famed as Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer, has a new book out, “20 Years Younger,” and will be sharing tips from it — and a few free copies — this evening from 7 to 9 at the Natick mall’s first floor atrium.

The Empire of Oprah can sometimes venture into some, shall we say, non-peer-reviewed advice? But his prescriptions have always tended to strike me as sensible and backed by reasonable evidence. Before we get into “20 Years Younger,” I asked him to formulate today’s “Why To Exercise.” His response:

Successful people look at today and find ways, even if their life is falling apart, to be happy today and feel good today and treat themselves right. And exercise and eating right is nurturing yourself every day. Whether or not the world is doing that, or close friends and family are doing that, you have the opportunity every day to nurture yourself, which is the most important thing to do because it also affects others.

Now for the book. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Funny coincidence about the title of your new book, “20 Years Younger.” I was just talking to a friend who recently returned from a high school reunion of 50-year-olds, and she said it looked sort of like two separate reunions, one of 40-year-olds and one of 60-year-olds. What would you say is the lesson there?
Continue reading