Wednesday 18 September 2019

Fiona O’Connell: Sleep tight... and make sure your surgeon does too

Lay Of The Land

'Sleep is crucial for learning, enabling us to process memories and new information' (stock photo)
'Sleep is crucial for learning, enabling us to process memories and new information' (stock photo)

Fiona O’Connell

This is the season of broken sleeps and early starts, with many parents in a panic to beat the rush hour and get children to school desks before reaching their office desks on time.

Maybe the similarities explain that joke about attending the school of hard knocks or university of life. Certainly, we never stop learning, maturity often opening our tired eyes to wonder why the supposed clever clogs that govern us are so clueless.

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Because how come we still have a society where we all have to stagger about in a sleep-deprived daze in order to meet identical deadlines, instead of staggering the various starting hours?

Especially in education, where we act as if one size fits all, in terms of school hours, instead of taking into account the different stages of a child’s development. Leading to the current chilling situation of sleep-deprived adolescents, often with devastating consequences.

Science tells us that a natural change in an adolescent’s circadian (24-hour) rhythm turns them into night owls. Yet the school system still forces them out of bed at the same time as before — so that many of them miss out on the most powerful and necessary REM sleep that happens between 6-8 hours.

This can result in a downward spiral as barely awake adolescents perform badly at school, displaying all the same symptoms as ADHD, for which they are prescribed drugs to help them concentrate, making the situation worse.

Sleep is crucial for learning, enabling us to process memories and new information. It’s particularly important for teenagers, who are vulnerable to peer pressure and the insidious impact of social media. But REM sleep and dreams lend emotional balance and give us perspective.

But no wonder age doesn’t always bring wisdom, given two thirds of adults fail to obtain the recommended eight hours sleep. Despite the fact that routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes our immune system and more than doubles our risk of cancer, not to mention heart disease and mental illness.

Yet where should you turn for help, when our health system culture of long hours means medical professionals are also exhausted?

Add unease to disease with the knowledge that a surgeon who has had only six hours’ sleep has a 170pc greater chance of surgical errors. While the medic who came up with the junior doctor rotas of long shifts and little sleep was apparently a big-time drug addict.

Even getting to hospital can be hazardous. Tragically, a person dies in a traffic accident every hour in the US due to a fatigue-related error, with vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceeding those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.

It’s enough to make you keep your kids at home, given Oscar Wilde’s quip that nothing worth knowing can be taught.

But before you decide anything, best sleep on it.

Sunday Independent

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