Sleep is money for the brain, and young adults are accruing as much as 10 hours of sleep debt each week. According to sleep expert Paul Kelley, a sleep-deprivation crisis is burdening young adults in today's world.
“This is a huge issue for society,” Kelley, who works for the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “We are generally a sleep-deprived society but the 14-24 age group is more sleep-deprived than any other sector of society. This causes serious threats to health, mood performance and mental health.”
For school children, Kelley advocates age-based start times: 8:30 a.m. for eight to 10-year-olds, 10 a.m. lessons for 16-year-olds, and 11 a.m. starts for 18-year-olds.
While this might sound drastic, his approach does have scientific backing. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adolescents don’t start releasing melatonin – a hormone that helps regulate our body clock – until nearly eleven o’clock at night. These secretions don’t stop pumping through their blood until much later in the morning, making it difficult to wake up early.
Despite this, in 42 American states more than 75% of schools start before 8:30 a.m., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The average start time is 8:03 a.m.
“At the age of 10 you get up and go to school and it fits in with our nine-to-five lifestyle,” Kelley said. “When you are about 55 you also settle into the same pattern. But in between it changes a huge amount and, depending on your age, you really need to be starting around three hours later, which is entirely natural.”
Sleep, or lack thereof, can affect scores on exams, mood during the day, and relationships with one’s family. It is a vital part of our existence on Earth, with one-third of our life spent snoozing.
“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” said Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Population Health, in a statement. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”
Early start times may also affect more than just school children. "Everybody is suffering and they don’t have to," said Kelley to the British Science Festival in Bradford. "Staff should start at 10 a.m. [They're] usually sleep-deprived.”
Kelley was previously a head teacher at Monkseaton High School in the U.K., where a pilot study was performed in which they instituted a 10 a.m. start time for students. The change saw an increase in top grades earned. He is now working with Teensleep, which aims to recruit 100 U.K. schools to participate in a trial of different start times.
While the dangers of sleep deprivation are well known, the ideal way to sleep is not as straightforward. There are reports that rest at night should be segmented into two chunks, while others have found beneficial effects to strategic napping during the day. It is also possible that sleep is person-specific, with each individual requiring a different sleep pattern to function at optimum level.
With how vital sleep is to our everyday lives, it is unlikely researchers will tire of these studies any time soon. After all, a slight adjustment to our sleep may be all that our brains need to tick that little bit better.