Dreamland is calling you; Sleep: An expert says we don't get nearly enough and don't realize how seriously it affects our health; HEALTH & FITNESS


Sure, you exercise. And you try to eat right. But do you pay attention to your sleeping habits? Dr. William Dement, a sleep pioneer, wishes you would. In his new book, "The Promise of Sleep" (Delacorte Press, $24.95), he argues that a good night's sleep saves lives.

"There is plenty of compelling evidence supporting the argument that sleep is the most important predictor of how long you will live, perhaps more important than whether you smoke, exercise, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol level," says Dement.

A Stanford University professor who is considered one of the world's leading authorities on sleep, Dement said he wants to alert the world about the power of sleep. He feels frustrated that so many people sacrifice sleep to meet the demands of endless days, that unnoticed sleep disorders shorten lives with heart attacks and strokes, that people fall asleep while driving and cause fatal crashes.

"I know about so many tragedies that I can't even think about them anymore because I start to cry," Dement said. A healthy person needs about seven to eight hours of sleep to feel wide awake and energetic for the entire day, Dement says. If you brag that you can get by on just a few hours a night or if you feel you need nine to 10 hours of slumber every night to feel good, you may need a sleep checkup.

"When people think about sleep, they think about only one problem and that's insomnia -- when it's really a vast terrain," Dement says.

Other disorders include sleep apnea (when a person stops breathing repeatedly during the night). In his book, Dement reports that every night more than 50 million Americans stop breathing and that apnea annually causes an estimated 38,000 fatal heart attacks and strokes in the United States. Apnea also causes extreme fatigue. The good news: with treatment, sleep apnea can often be cured.

When you sleep right, you feel great. Dement uses a fellow professor as an example.

Each August, the professor lives in his cabin in the mountains. Because the cabin has no electrical power, the professor marks his day by the rising and setting sun. At the beginning of his vacation, he sleeps 10 to 11 hours a night, sometimes taking a nap during the day. After a few days, he begins waking earlier, sleeping about nine hours each night.

"He can feel the vitality seep back into him," Dement says. "By the time his vacation is over, he has paid back a huge amount of sleep debt and established a rhythm that works best for his body."

Dement wants people to think about how they feel when they sleep like that.

"After a good night's sleep you rise feeling fresh and renewed," he says. "Your senses soak up simple pleasures, such as the clean smell of the air, the singing of the birds, the texture of the morning paper ... you are engaged with the world."

It's Dement's wish that everyone have that feeling, every day.

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