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Why Sleep is so Important for Adolescents and Young Adults

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Like diet and exercise, sleep is critical to staying healthy. New research indicates that lack of sleep affects our mood, health, performance, and it increases the risk for unintentional injuries and death.  The National Institutes of Health has identified adolescents and young adults (ages 12-25) as being particularly at risk for problems associated with sleepiness.

The most frightening consequence of sleepiness is unintentional injury and death. Sleep-related car crashes are most common among young adults due to their tendency to stay up late, sleep too little, and drive at night. For example, one study done in North Carolina found that 55 percent of sleep-related crashes involved people 25 years old or younger; 78 percent were males.

Lack of sleep is associated with lower grades and poorer school performance overall. Students who have academic problems or who earn C’s or below tend to report getting less sleep, having a later bedtime, and having more erratic sleep schedules than those who earn higher grades. Signs of sleepiness may mimic symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in some individuals. Difficulty staying focused, impulsivity, difficulty sitting still, and problems completing tasks are common in sleep-deprived individuals and those with ADHD.

Sleep loss is linked to negative moods, and is associated with a decreased ability to control, inhibit, or shift emotional responses. Anger, sadness, and fear are common among sleepy adolescents and young adults. One study found that high school students who went to sleep two hours later on weekends than weekdays reported feeling more depressed than those who had a more regular sleep schedule. Another study found that aggressive behaviors were highly associated with shorter sleep times and later bedtimes.

Lack of sleep also wreaks havoc on one’s physical health. People who sleep less tend to eat more high-calorie foods and are at increased risk for diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular problems. Insufficient sleep disrupts hormone levels and decreases immune functions. Sleep-deprived individuals also have an exaggerated pain perception and report more bodily discomfort and pain than those who get more sleep.

Look for signs of sleep deprivation in your children. If your child has difficulty waking in the morning, is irritable late in the day, falls asleep in class or during the day, or sleeps for extra long periods when off from school, there could be a problem that needs to be addressed. Effectively adjusting one’s sleep schedule requires gradual, persistent, and consistent changes. Talk with them about their sleep/wake schedules and assess how alert or tired they feel at different times of day. You can encourage them to keep a sleep diary to promote awareness and increase self-efficacy. Once children of any age recognize how much better they feel with a good night’s sleep, they are more motivated to stick with a schedule.  If simple behavioral methods are ineffective at changing a child’s sleep pattern, consult a sleep expert.  Excessive daytime sleepiness can be a sign of a number of serious but treatable sleep disorders.

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. In addition to providing general mental health services, Jaime works with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating social skills groups. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.

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