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Sleep deprivation is much more dangerous than we thought, a huge study has found

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Hollie Richardson
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Sleep deprivation

In one of the biggest sleep studies to date, researchers have found that sleep deprivation affects us much more than previous theories have suggested.

As a nation of insomniacs, we’re always on the lookout for advice and tips on how to get a better night’s sleep. Taking a hot bath before bedtime, cognitive behavioural therapy sessions and practicing breathing techniques are just a handful of tricks we’ve tried out recently. And we all know that we need to kick those bad habits that do us no favours, like online shopping on our phones in bed or drinking caffeine throughout the day.

Because the truth is that insomnia is a regular thing for nearly 16 million adults. This means that we are getting less than five hours of sleep per night. According to recent proposed government guidelines, the healthiest amount of sleep is nine hours a night.

And now, one of the biggest pieces of sleep research to date has shown just how dangerous the effects of sleep deprivation can be. 

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Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab conducted the research, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

As well as being one of the biggest studies of sleep, it is the first to assess how sleep deprivation doubles the chance of placekeeping errors – your ability to complete a series of steps without losing your place, despite multiple interruptions.

It also found that deprivation has a big effect on our lapses in attention.

“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,” co-author Kimberley Fenn said. “Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can’t trust that they won’t make costly errors. Oftentimes - like when behind the wheel of a car - these errors can have tragic consequences.”

sleep
Sleep deprivation is much worse than researchers first thought.

The researchers hope that people will acknowledge just how significantly their abilities are hindered because of a lack of sleep.

“Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation,” said co-author Michelle Stepan. “Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

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So, how did they conduct the study to find this out?

The researchers recruited 138 people to participate in the overnight sleep assessment: 77 stayed awake all night and 61 went home to sleep. 

All participants took two separate cognitive tasks in the evening: one that measured reaction time to a stimulus; the other measured a participant’s ability to maintain their place in a series of steps without omitting or repeating a step – even after sporadic interruptions. 

The participants then repeated both tasks in the morning to see how sleep-deprivation affected their performance.

“After being interrupted there was a 15% error rate in the evening and we saw that the error rate spiked to about 30% for the sleep-deprived group the following morning,” Stepan explained. “The rested participants’ morning scores were similar to the night before.

“There are some tasks people can do on auto-pilot that may not be affected by a lack of sleep,” Fenn added. “However, sleep deprivation causes widespread deficits across all facets of life.”

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Just in case you needed another reminder of why getting enough sleep is so important, this is definitely it. 

Images: Getty

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