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When humans suffer from sleep debt, it means they are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Lack of sufficient sleep accumulates and results in negative effects on cognitive abilities. It also causes noted symptoms like sleepiness during the day, and if sleep deprivation is significant, it may cause serious risk, where people fall asleep even when they’re performing activities like driving. Some people suffer a few days of sleep debt but are able to restore this debt with a return to normal sleeping patterns, though the effects may still be felt on the days when sleep was poor and for a few days thereafter. Others have a constant sleep debt, that may continue to build, creating increased cognitive issues and a greater risk of falling asleep at any time.
The average adult requires about eight hours of sleep a night, and children and teens need more. Studies show that many Americans undersleep by about an hour each night, and the deprivation is more significant with certain groups, such as American teenagers, college students, workers on mid-shifts, and those training to be physicians. The routine lack of sufficient sleep can begin to accumulate a heavy sleep debt that isn’t fully remedied by trying to sleep extra on weekends to “make up” for it.
Some of the symptoms of sleep debt include sleepiness during waking hours, reduced activity levels, and lower performance ability. With a huge sleep debt, people may notice they have greater errors in cognition and might be more forgetful or learn at a slower pace. Risk for conditions like high blood pressure and obesity increase.
The situation worsens when sufferers of this condition find they literally fall asleep during waking hours, and might even do so while they’re performing activities requiring vigilance, like driving. There are many documented cases of people having fallen asleep at the wheel and caused accidents that were life threatening or fatal. Finally, there is a link between poor sleep and depression, and a larger debt may create greater likelihood of suffering depression.
Medical experts suggest there is no quick way to pay off sleep debt. Instead, people with this condition need to begin a payment plan, where they get a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night every night. Sleeping extra on weekends is not adequate for most people if they undersleep during the week. The goal is to return to normal sleep patterns daily.
This suggestion is problematic because many people have such busy lives, and can barely fit in the requisite amount of sleep. The high school student, requiring ten hours of sleep a night, may not get it because of school requirements and extracurricular activities. Adults often don’t get the sleep they need because their lives are overscheduled. Since so many suffer from sleep debt, a serious attempt to remedy it may involve systemic changes, where schools, employers, and each individual works to simplify obligations so that there is room in life for regular, adequate sleep.