Sleep: Life and Death

Sleep: When It’s a Matter of Life and Death

A young man who was recently interviewed on a show called American Ninja Warrior stated that as part of his training regimen, he sleeps only two hours per night—adding, “I never met anyone who has died from lack of sleep.” Unfortunately, too many people share his concerning lack of knowledge about sleep and an even more dangerous disrespect for this very fundamental biological necessity that affects every aspect of our functioning as human beings. And while the young athlete’s statement was simply a misguided attempt to demonstrate how disciplined and hard-working he is, it reflected a fundamental misunderstanding about the importance of sleep— and how your very life depends on it.

Regrettably, and to our personal and collective detriment, too many people are not getting the sleep their minds and bodies need. The irrefutable fact is that the majority of adults require about seven to nine hours of sleep to feel rested and function optimally. The failure to understand and acknowledge this fact could even cost the life of you or a loved one. Here are just a few of the many important reasons why the young man is dead wrong about “a lack of sleep.”

Serious Health Problems with Sleep Deprivation

Side effects of sleep deprivation can include obesity, diabetes, hypertension, anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse. Sleep deprivation also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. In one study, people who slept less than six hours per night were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who got the recommended amount of sleep on a consistent basis.

Cancer and Sleep Deprivation

Long-term sleep disruptions impact the immune system and may raise the risk of some cancers. Studies in recent years have identified a relationship between a lack of sufficient sleep and breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. A study published in 2012 demonstrated an association between insufficient sleep and biologically more aggressive tumors as well as the likelihood of cancer recurrence in post-menopausal women.  The study’s coauthor, Dr. Li Li, MD, PhD, of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine stated, “Short sleep duration is a public health hazard leading not only to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but also cancer.”

Medical Errors Result with Little Sleep

A survey of U.S. interns published in 2006 found that “extended-duration work shifts in the healthcare setting were associated with an increased risk of significant medical errors, adverse events, and attentional failures.” In fact, a state investigation into the death of eighteen-year-old Libby Zion in 1984 at New York Hospital concluded the long hours worked by the residents played a role in her death.

Transportation Industry and Sleep

Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is considered to be a major causal factor in transportation-related accidents. The 2008 crash of Air France killed 228 people when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Pilot Marc Dubois was reported to have had only one hour of sleep the night before. The crash of Air India Express Flight 812 in 2010 was the third deadliest aviation disaster in India, killing 158 people. The Guardian reported that the pilot could be heard snoring heavily on the cockpit voice recorder shortly before the crash. Ten people lost their lives in a high-speed train accident on Feb. 28, 2001 in the UK. Investigators determined that the engineer, who failed to apply the brakes going downhill, was sleep deprived.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is a disorder in which the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep causing pauses in breathing or shallow breaths. OSA has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and irregular heart rhythms. A study published in 2010 demonstrated that obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of coronary events or death from cardiovascular causes.


Microsleeps are brief, unintended episodes of sleep experienced by a sleep-deprived person. A man from Dublin, Ireland, who killed a young mother and seriously injured her fifteen-week-old daughter when he hit them with his car during a microsleep, is serving a two-year jail sentence. New York train engineer William Rockefeller Jr. was described as “consciously asleep” moments before the train he was driving reached speeds over 80 mph when it crashed, killing four people and injuring dozens more. Rockefeller stated that he was in a “daze” and didn’t “know what I was thinking about” prior to the accident.

Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS)

Each year in the US, close to forty families lose a child to FBS by unintentionally leaving a child in a parked car. In 2011, Brett Cavaliero left home with his one-year-old daughter with the intent of dropping her off at day care and then going on to work. Cavaliero drove straight to work, tragically forgetting his daughter was in the car. Several hours later, his daughter was declared dead from heatstroke. Under circumstances of sleep deprivation or stress, parents can default to repetitive actions and forget that a child is in a car.

Automobile Accidents

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than the recommended seven hours on a daily basis, and according to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, missing between one to two hours of the recommended seven hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period nearly doubles a person’s risk for a car crash. A person missing two to three hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period more than quadrupled the risk of a crash compared to a well-rested driver—the identical crash risk the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration associates with drunk driving.

Suicide and Insomnia

Insomnia is a known risk factor for suicide—and for that reason, sleep deprivation may pose a heightened risk of suicide, even in a person without known psychiatric conditions. According to the CDC, suicide is the eleventh-leading cause of all deaths in the U.S. and the third-leading cause of death for those between the ages of ten and twenty-four.

Industrial Accidents and Sleep Deprivation

Major industrial accidents with incalculable costs and significant loss of life that have been blamed on sleep deprivation include the space shuttle Challenger, Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, Three Mile Island, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. These are tragic reminders that critical decision-making is greatly impaired under conditions of sleep deprivation.

Workplace Accidents and Daytime Sleepiness

Workers who are sleep-deprived are 70 percent more likely to be involved in work-related accidents than their well-rested counterparts. The findings of a systematic review published in 2014 suggested that workers with sleep problems had a 1.62 times higher risk of being injured than workers without sleep problems, with approximately 13 percent of work injuries attributed to sleep problems. In one Swedish study of nearly 50,000 people, those with “difficulties in sleeping during the last two weeks” experienced an increased risk of dying in a work-related accident.

Mortality and Sleep

“Not enough sleep leads to a wake,” reads a headline in the Mirror, citing that sleep deprivation is associated with shorter life expectancy. The results of research published in 2010 found that short duration of sleep was associated with a greater risk of death.

Author: Terry Cralle, MS, RN, Certified Clinical Sleep Educator

What You Don’t Know about Sleep Deprivation Can Hurt or Even Kill You

A lack of knowledge about sleep results in too many people who underestimate the power of sleep—and some tragically underestimate the power of sleep deprivation. So if someone tells you that they have not met anyone who has died of sleep deprivation, feel free to take issue with that statement.

It is incumbent on us to communicate the very real dangers of sleep deprivation that affect us as individuals and as a society. Sleep-health education and promotion should rival the public education we have invested in anti-smoking, drunk-driving, and seatbelt campaigns. Our health, safety, well-being, and ultimately our lives depend on it.

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