Americans Are Sleeping More, Despite New Demands on Time

Americans report sleeping 20 minutes more per day than 10 years ago, but they're more likely to report sleeplessness too.

Americans report sleeping 20 minutes more per day than 10 years ago, but they’re more likely to report sleeplessness too.

With all the demands on our time and attention—longer work hours, nonstop extracurricular activities for the kids, constant internet connectivity and buzzing gadgets—Americans supposedly leave less and less time for sleep. Worries about the economy and unemployment over the past few years would seem to add another reason to lie awake at night, but a new decade-long study shows that we’re actually setting aside more time for more sleep, even if it may not be the best kind of rest.

The research by Diane Lauderdale, PhD, professor of epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago, and colleagues from Yale and the University of Wisconsin, looked at 10 years of data from a nationwide survey of how people spend their time each day. What they found contradicts the common belief that Americans are sleeping less.

From 2003-2012, people allotted an average of 20 minutes more sleep per day at the end of that period than the beginning. And the bad economy didn’t keep people awake either: During the Great Recession starting in 2009, each additional point of state unemployment was associated with a about an extra minute of sleep each day.

This extra sleep may have come at a price, though. While Americans were setting aside more bedtime, they were also more likely to report bouts of sleeplessness too. The study, published in the July edition of the journal Economics & Human Biology, provides a glimpse of the tradeoffs we make to set aside time for rest.

Diane Lauderdale, PhD

“You have 1440 minutes in 24 hours. Everybody has it and they always have that. So if some activity is taking less time, that time has to get divided among other things, whether that’s work, commuting, free time or sleep,” Lauderdale said.

She and her colleagues used data from the American Time Use Survey, a nationally representative sample of more than 100,000 people collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The purpose of the survey is to provide a snapshot of how people use their time over the course of a randomly selected 24-hour period.

Participants are interviewed on the phone about how they spent the last day, including questions about when they went to bed and got up (this is the same data set used for all those trend stories about how much time people spend at work, commuting, doing housework, etc). The survey also included questions to gauge “sleeplessness,” or how much people reported tossing and turning or lying awake at night. This method of asking about specific bed times creates a more accurate record of time allotted for sleep than asking people to recall how many hours they slept.

Lauderdale said she was struck by the two parallel trends of both more sleep and increased reports of sleeplessness over the 120-month span. It could mean that all of the distractions of modern life, stress about the economy and the extra stimulation and late night lights of smartphones and tablets really are disrupting our sleep, even if we make sure to get to bed at a decent hour. But it could also mean sleep experts have been doing their job getting the word out about the health risks of too little sleep.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of scientific and media coverage around the problem of sleep,” she said. “People have become more aware of difficulty sleeping, and maybe they thought it was more noteworthy to tell the interviewer than they might have thought 10 years before.”

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Antillón M. & John Mullahy (2014). Sleep behavior and unemployment conditions, Economics , 14 22-32. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2014.03.003

About Matt Wood (433 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer for the University of Chicago Medicine and editor of the Science Life blog.
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