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More than a third of U.S. adults don't get enough sleep. Here's how to get the rest we need


A new year often brings promises to treat our minds and bodies better than we did the year before - maybe healthier eating, maybe signing up for a gym membership and actually using it. But what about sleep? Lauren Whitehurst says that should be our top priority. She's an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, and she researches the cognitive effects of sleep with a focus on what she calls sleep equity, and she's with us now. Lauren, welcome.

LAUREN WHITEHURST: Hello. Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: More than a third of adults in the United States struggle with sleep issues. That's according to the CDC. What is it that keeps us from getting a good night's sleep?

WHITEHURST: I think there's - we can boil it down to a couple of different things. One is interpersonal - kind of just what we do, right? Maybe we don't value our sleep as high as we value other things in our lives. Other things are kind of external factors, things that act on us - our work schedule - when we have to get up, when we have to be at work. Sometimes it's caregiving responsibilities - our children not sleeping through the night. Other things are societal factors, things outside of our control, kind of the ways in which our society values our productivity versus what our sleep needs actually are.

PFEIFFER: And what about people who end up scrolling Twitter before they'll go to bed or they have that blue glow? I always hear that if you do that right before you go to bed, you're probably overstimulating yourself. It's going to affect your sleep.

WHITEHURST: Yes. Having access to light all the time is not great for our body's systems that regulate our sleep. There's some new science coming out that's really trying to peel apart, when is it helpful to use some of the tools that our phones give us access to and when is it not? When is it going to create kind of greater - or exacerbate some of the sleep problems that you mentioned at the top?

PFEIFFER: There are also people who miss out on sleep more than others because of life and socioeconomic factors. You and your colleagues have a term for this. It's sleep equity. How do you define that?

WHITEHURST: Yeah. I really think about sleep equity as an access issue. What we find in society is that caregiving roles or shift works - working when your body would rather be sleeping - disproportionately falls on people of color - Black people, other people of color. And that creates this kind of disparity in sleep that's more than just a difference, more than just something - your sleep is different than someone else's. This is more of a systemic, systematic difference that we find, and that becomes a disparity.

PFEIFFER: I want to read something from your university research webpage. It's about your research interest. And I'll read it slowly so people can absorb this. You say that you're interested in how, quote, "the lack of access to restorative sleep can play a role in creating or exacerbating disparities in cognitive health for communities historically underserved by science and medicine in the U.S." How does sleep loss worsen existing health disparities in certain groups of people?

WHITEHURST: You know, that's something that has really taken off. This idea of sleep equity, or sleep as the kind of original issue in a lot of other kind of health concerns that we've seen, has really taken off in the last, you know, 30 years or so. For a long time, we knew that sleep problems happened alongside other health conditions. Maybe if you had heart conditions or maybe if you had some other - diabetes, other types of health issues, maybe your sleep was impacted too. What we're finding now is that sometimes sleep actually predates those health issues. And if we can start to think about or target the sleep issue first, we can actually start to solve some of these other health disparities where we find that Black individuals or Hispanic individuals suffer from diabetes and other health conditions at higher rates than other white people in the population.

PFEIFFER: And poor sleep might be worsening those problems?

WHITEHURST: Poor sleep might be worsening those problems, and poor sleep might actually be the cause of some of those problems.

PFEIFFER: So let's talk about solutions. Now, some people can't change some of the basics, like their job or the - maybe the stress in their life and the lure of that screen. So how do you advise people to get more sleep?

WHITEHURST: We have to start with an education. We have to start understanding the kind of fundamental purpose that sleep plays in our lives, the fact that sleep is really critical to regulating our healthy body. And if we don't get good sleep, a lot of the other things that we care about - our general, overall health, our ability to engage with our loved ones, our social interactions- will suffer. And so I think we start - have to start to kind of center sleep at the middle of all of the other things that surround our lives. Once we start to reposition that, we can start to shift our kind of cultural value, how much we place on the value of sleep to ourselves.

PFEIFFER: Lauren Whitehurst is an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Kentucky. Thank you very much.

WHITEHURST: Thank you.


FLEETWOOD MAC: (Singing) Now, here you go again. You say you want your freedom. Well, who am I to keep you down? It's only right that you should play the way you feel it. But listen carefully... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.