Sleep deprivation a concern for students

Lee Billings

Dr. Mark Mahowald, a University neurology professor, has an important message for students everywhere: Get more sleep!

“The biggest sleep problem amongst college students is sleep deprivation,” Mahowald said.

In the weeks before spring break, getting enough sleep is especially important for students, he said.

“Any degree of sleep deprivation leads to impairment,” said Mahowald. “For instance, take a car full of college students on their way home from their last set of finals – they’ve studied the past two or three nights for the final and they want to drive all night to get home. One of them falls asleep and hits a tree Ö and the car’s full of dead college students. It’s just sleep deprivation.”

The nationwide prevalence of sleep deprivation and its accompanying sleep debt is troubling to Mahowald, who is a proponent of new regulations aimed at decreasing the chances of commercial truck and bus drivers falling asleep on the roads.

“People ask ‘How do you know if you’re sleep deprived?’ ” said Mahowald. “And the answer to that is, ‘If you use an alarm clock in the morning to wake up.’ “

Keeping a steady sleep schedule, getting regular exercise, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and heavy meals around bedtime are tips for getting a good night’s sleep, according to the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center’s Web site.

Mahowald, who is the sleep center’s director, said the center is the first of its kind in the Midwest. He and his colleagues have been recognized leaders in the sleep research and medicine field since the center’s 1978 inception.

In 1985, Mahowald and Dr. Carlos Schenk – a sleep center physiatrist – described for the first time “REM behavior disorder,” a sleep illness where a dreamer physically acts out his dreams, lashing out with flailing arms and legs or yelling at phantoms in the night. The disorder almost exclusively affects men in their mid-fifties. Many of those men – for reasons still unknown – ultimately develop Parkinson’s disease, Mahowald said.

The disorder is one of many parasomnias Mahowald studies and treats. Parasomnias such as common afflictions like sleepwalking and rare problems like sleep-related eating disorder and restless legs syndrome.

Mahowald estimates REM behavior disorder strikes 0.5 percent of the adult population, while probably “4 to 5 percent of adults are sleepwalking.”

In 1996, Mahowald – citing research by Dr. Mary Carskadon of Brown University – encouraged Edina and Minneapolis high schools to start classes an hour later to accommodate the shifted biological clocks of high school students. School officials have said students performed better under the new schedules, while their irritability and absenteeism decreased.

Various schools around the country have experimented with similar changes to their schedules.

As an active world-renowned sleep expert, Mahowald says he fields 40 to 50 interview requests per year.

This month’s New York Times Magazine featured Mahowald and Schenk’s parasomnia research. Mahowald also appeared in January on ABC’s Good Morning America to crusade for increased coverage of sleep disorders in medical school curriculums.

So, how does someone so busy with seeing patients, performing research, and talking to the media manage to fend off sleep deprivation?

“Everybody uses an alarm clock,” Mahowald said, tired-eyed and smiling.

Lee Billings welcomes comments at [email protected]