Half of Americans suffer bouts of insomnia or chronic sleep loss that could endanger their health, a panel of leading sleep disorder experts cautioned yesterday.
Although many sleep-deprived Americans acknowledge feelings of irritability, apathy and lethargy, few realize that failing to catch enough shut-eye can lead to long-term health problems, some of which can be fatal.
"Sleep disorders and chronic sleep deprivation are America's worst, largest and costliest invisible [medical] problem," Dr. William Dement, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., said at an American Medical Association briefing in New York.
The AMA called the briefing for reporters to sound a public alarm over the problem.
"Individuals are not healthy unless their sleep is healthy," Dr. Dement emphasized.
Chronic sleep loss, he said, can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and the "many thousands" of traffic accident deaths caused each year by drivers who fall asleep.
It is estimated that 87 percent of accidents caused by drivers who fall asleep are fatal -- about 10,000 deaths a year.
One-third of fatal truck accidents are caused by drivers who fall asleep.
Despite 20 years of sleep research, Dr. Dement said, few of the treatments for such problems as insomnia have been communicated to the public or the medical profession. "The result is that most [people] have a huge sleep deprivation, much of which is deliberate," he said.
People deprive themselves of sleep, he said, by burning the candle at both ends, being workaholics and saying they've got too much to do to take the luxury of a good night's sleep.
But many other people, Dr. Dement said, are simply unaware that they have a problem.
Those seeking medical care for fatigue often leave the doctor's office with sleeping pills or medication for anemia, depression or even an overactive thyroid.
Dr. Dement said doctors should become sharper at identifying symptoms of sleep deprivation, study new treatment options and direct patients to sleep-disorder clinics.
"Americans resent the hours lost to sleep but don't know what to do about it," said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a Harvard researcher who is director of the Laboratory for Circadian and Sleep Disorders Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Czeisler said scientists still don't really understand why people need sleep, yet it is as necessary to life as breathing and eating. Studies show that a young animal deprived of sleep for as little as four days will die.
Sleep is thought to regenerate the body somehow, restoring chemical balance lost during wakefulness, although this process has yet to be understood.