The Optimistic Futurist: Let’s wake up to many costs of sleep deprivation

  • Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 12:01 a.m.

Three issues in particular threaten our country’s future — obesity, the national debt and failing schools — and are linked in an unexpected way. One solution can help fix all three.

Obesity now affects one-third of our population. Another one-third of our population is overweight and “headed toward obesity.” This hefty population contributes to our national debt because these two-thirds of our population add significantly to the rising cost of health care, much of which is paid by the taxpayer. An obese person averages $20,000 higher lifetime health-care bills than a person of more optimal weight. Excess pounds add $147 billion annually to our national health-care expense — 7 percent of all health-care spending in the United States.

The third issue is our educational system, now the subject of intense national debate because many children are not learning at a rate needed to keep our country competitive.

So how can we easily make a New Year’s resolution that will contribute to the solution to obesity, our national debt and our educational system?

Simply help others get more sleep.

As a culture, we used to pride ourselves on getting up early to milk the cows, work the paper route or perform other early activities. During that era, one thing was different; there were no news shows starting at 11 p.m., no comedy after the news, no “tweeting” from bed or “just checking” email. As a country, we went to bed earlier.

Later bedtime has a profound impact on our nation’s future, because it has shortened most people’s sleep hours.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that optimal physical and mental health requires adults to sleep seven to nine hours, but fully a third of all adults get less than six! Teenagers need to sleep around nine hours per night — but less than one third of them do!

This contributes to obesity.
Scientists have found that two brain chemicals in particular are upset by lack of sleep. One announces you are hungry, and one tells you that you are full. The combination of these two chemical imbalances in the sleep-deprived brain results in the average tired person eating 400 more calories daily. Upsetting these chemicals impacts the nation’s health-care spending, drives us further into debt and hurts education.

We hear a lot today about “failing schools” and the need for reform. One of the most successful interventions a school system can make is to start school days later! Research shows that as teenagers’ bodies mature, as any parent can attest, their normal sleep cycle shifts to later. Even if they go to bed on time, they have difficulty going to sleep. If school starts, as most do, at 7:30 a.m., they have to get up around 6 a.m., long before they have had enough hours of sleep.

The Air Force Academy studied the impact of individual students’ daily class schedule starting times. Some cadets had early classes, and some got to sleep later by an hour or more. The academy found that students starting the school day early performed significantly worse in all their classes than those starting later.

In North Carolina’s Wake County, researchers found that middle school students who started their academic day one hour later than other students had higher grades than those who started earlier. They also had fewer absences. Poorer performing students benefited the most.

School start times are driven by the school bus routing schedule, which is often organized for community tradition, perceived fuel savings or sports schedules. In many cases, the bus schedule is not optimized for learning.

When the West Des Moines School District in Iowa changed its bus schedule to allow for later starting of high school to improve academic performance, it also saved more than $700,000 annually in fuel alone.

Despite these findings, few of the 14,000 U.S. school districts have acted on this knowledge. As a result, hundreds of billions of educational dollars are wasted each year.

Just for fun, go look up the school start times in your area. If you find any of the middle or high schools starting at 7:30 a.m. — a good hour earlier than the literature says is best practice, you have identified an opportunity to make a better future for America.

When people get more sleep, they lose weight, they live longer, our national healthcare expense goes down, school test scores go up, absenteeism goes down, discipline issues go down, and teacher morale goes up.

You can change America for the better by bringing the needed changes to your home, and by introducing these facts to leaders in your community. Will you? Please?

Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. For more information (including source notes for today’s column) visit

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