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Heavy eyelids bring grave consequences behind the wheel

 

Last updated 2/26/2009 at Noon



We’ve all been there – an early morning commute during a week marked by late nights and, despite how hard we try, we can’t seem to keep our eyes open.

Sipping a beverage, a blast of cold air from the window and upping the volume on the radio are futile efforts under the weight of a looming sleep debt – the cause of nearly 100,000 accidents and between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths a year in the United States.

In an independent study conducted on February 14, 100 Stanford University students were asked to fill out a survey about their experiences with drowsy driving.

A staggering 85 percent admitted to having nodded off at the wheel at least once, and 50 percent of those surveyed had done so on multiple occasions.

Most shocking of all was that one in three students could recall swaying from their lane or being involved in an accident due to heavy eyelids on the roadways.

Despite these figures, the causes and prevalence of sleep-related accidents still go largely unrecognized. They continue to be a lurking peril in a society which implements extensive youth programs on drug and alcohol awareness.

Experts today suggest that “unhealthy sleep remains America’s largest, deadliest and most costly health problem.”

The danger is highest among young adults age 15 to 24. They are responsible for more than half of all sleep-related accidents annually.

Dr. William C. Dement, MD, PhD, DSc, partially attributes this to the fact that we now live in a “24/7” world in which the demands of work, school and social life carry far into the night, offsetting the natural cycles of sleep and wakefulness that have been evolving in the Suprachiasmatic Nuclei region of our brain for thousands of years.

Dement is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on sleep with countless discoveries and more than 500 publications to his name.

He founded the world’s first clinical research center for sleep disorders, an institution which has been instrumental in expanding the world’s knowledge of sleep.

After nearly 60 years of research, Dr. Dement’s number one goal is to educate the public about the dangers of sleep deprivation, sleep disorders and the effects each of these have on our health.

It is his belief that fundamental sleep knowledge must become an integral part of basic education in the near future.

Cases like that of 19-year-old Candy Lynn Baldwin, who fell asleep at the wheel and caused the fatal [San Francisco] Bay Bridge tragedy last August, are especially heartbreaking because they are so easily prevented yet still occur frequently.

The principles of sleep health are simple but, if understood, can bring lifesaving results.

For example, sleep debt (total sum of recurrent sleep deprivation), the main cause of drowsiness, can only be gotten rid of by “paying back” hours of lost sleep.

The burden of a large sleep debt is enough to overwhelm us at an inopportune time, potentially causing a dangerous situation.

Here is some helpful information that can improve your health and might make you think twice about pulling that next all-nighter:

• Studies by NASA and various universities have proven that sleep deprivation drastically inhibits everything from reaction time to academic and athletic performance. The best performance-enhancing supplement is undoubtedly sleep.

• Taking advantage of any spare time to catch a short “power-nap” can help pay off sleep debt and will leave you more refreshed for the rest of the day.

• The “triumvirate of health” consists of nutrition, physical fitness and sleep. Without all three, you cannot be entirely healthy. If you’re feeling seriously sleep deprived, skip the gym and instead repay some of that sleep debt.

• Studies indicate that most single-car accidents follow a two-peak pattern in conjunction with drooping alertness. The hours of 1 to 4 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. are the most hazardous to be on the roads. Be aware of the increased danger and the higher likelihood that you yourself will become drowsy.

• If you must drive during these dead-periods, remember the motto that Dr. Dement tells his students at Stanford: “Drowsiness is Red Alert!” The moment your eyelids get heavy, your body is signaling that it is in the last phase before the inevitable onset of sleep. Pull over. By doing so you are protecting your life and the lives of those around you.

For more information about sleep-related issues, go to http://www.stanford.edu/~dement or, for help diagnosing/treating a potential sleep disorder, contact your physician.

Nick Mendoza is a member of the Class of 2012 at Stanford University, majoring in earth systems with an emphasis in economics.

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