Chronic Sleep Loss Severely Impairs Cognitive Abilities, Especially Late at Night

New Study Dispels Myth That People Can Easily Catch Up on Chronic Sleep Debt

Often associated with chronic pain, chronic sleep loss is hardly reconciled by a few nights of good sleep, according to a new study in Science Translational Medicine that does not bode well for people who sleep poorly during the week and try to catch up on rest during the weekend.

In this study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, 9 healthy volunteers were recruited to live a 43-hour day that included 33 hours of wakefulness and 10 hours of scheduled sleep for approximately 3 weeks.

After 10 hours of sleep (which equated to 5.6 hours of sleep for every 24 hours), the volunteers initially performed well on cognitive tasks; however, their reaction times dropped as the 33 hours progressed, according to the study’s findings.

Most notably, cognitive performance was worst at the times of the day (late at night/early morning hours) when the body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm was at its lowest performance. Lack of sleep has been previously estimated to cause late night, reaction time delays that are 10 times more than normal.

Based on such findings, the researchers cautioned how accumulating chronic sleep debt can be especially dangerous for professionals who work late into the night, such as surgeons, truck drivers and heavy machinery operators. They also noted the importance of people not falling into the trap of trying to make up for lost sleep later in the week and stressed the value of sleeping on a regular schedule that includes the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

For patients with chronic back pain, their symptoms can make it extremely difficult to sleep on a consistent basis, resulting in a vicious cycle that makes them feel as if they’re always hurting and exhausted.

In such situations, chronic suffers should consider treating their pain and sleeping problems together via a multidisciplinary approach that may include disciplined sleep hygiene; psychological approaches incorporating relaxation training, hypnosis and/or deep breathing; and medications that are designed to aid with getting to sleep.

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