Posted by: Francis Koster Published: December 30, 2012
Asleep at the National Safety Switch
Asleep at the National Safety Switch
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
Three issues in particular threaten the future of our country – obesity, the national debt, and failing schools – are linked in an unexpected way. One solution can help fix all three.
Obesity now affects one-third of our population. Another one-third of our population is overweightand “headed toward obesity”. This hefty population contributes to our national debt because these two-thirds of our population add significantly to the rising cost of healthcare, much of which is paid by the taxpayer. An obese person averages $20,000 higher lifetime healthcare bills than a person of more optimal weight. Excess pounds add $147 billion annually to our national healthcare expense – seven percent of all healthcare spending in the United States. 
The third issue is our educational system, now the subject of intense national debate because many children are not learning at a rate needed to keep our country competitive.
So how can we easily make a New Year’s resolution that will contribute to the solution to obesity, to our national debt, and to our educational system?
Simply, help others get more sleep.
As a culture, we used to pride ourselves on getting up early to milk the cows, or work the paper route, or perform other early activities. During that era one thing was different –there were no news shows starting at 11 pm, no comedy after the news, no “tweeting” from bed, or “just checking” e-mail. As a country, we went to bed earlier.
Later bedtimes has a profound impact on our nation’s future because it has shortened most people’s sleep hours.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that optimal physical and mental health requires adults to sleep from seven to nine hours, but fully a third of all adults get less than six!. Teenagers need to sleep around nine hours per night – but less than one-third of them do. 
This causes obesity.
Scientists have found that two brain chemicals in particular are upset by lack of sleep. One announces that you are hungry (if you don’t sleep enough, you want to eat more), and one tells you that you are full (if you don’t sleep enough, you want to keep eating). The combination of these two imbalances in the sleep-deprived brain result in the average tired person eating 400 more calories daily. Upsetting these chemicals impacts nation’s healthcare spending and drives us further into debt, and hurts education.
We hear a lot today about “failing schools” and the need for reform. One of the most successful interventions a school system can make is to start their school days later! Research shows that as teen agers’ bodies mature, as any parent can attest, their normal sleep cycle shifts to later. Even if they go to bed on time they literally cannot go to sleep. If the school starts as most do at 7:30 a.m., they have to get up around 6 a.m., long before they had enough hours of sleep.
The Air Force Academy studied the impact of individual student’s daily class schedule starting times. Some cadets had early classes and some got to sleep later by an hour or more. The Academy found that students starting the school day early performed significantly worse in all their classes than those starting later.
In Wake County, North Carolina, researchers found that middle school students who started their academic day one hour later than other students had higher grades than those who started earlier. They also had fewer absences. Poorer performing students benefited the most.
School start times are driven by the school bus routing schedule which is often organized for community tradition, or perceived fuel savings, or sports schedules. In many cases, the bus schedule is not optimized for learning.
When West Des Moines School District changed its bus schedule to allow for later starting of high school to improve academic performance, they also saved over $700,000 annually in fuel alone.
Despite these findings, few of the 14,000 school districts in the USA have acted on this knowledge. Hundreds of billions of educational dollars are wasted each year.
Just for fun, go look up the school start times in your part of the country. If you find any of the middle or high schools starting at 7:30 am – a good hour earlier than the literature says is best practice – you have identified an opportunity to make a better future for America.
When people get more sleep, they lose weight, they live longer, our national healthcare expense goes down, school test scores go up, absenteeism goes down, discipline issues go down, and teacher morale goes up.
You can change America for the better by bringing the needed changes to your home, and by introducing these facts to leaders in your community.
Will you? Please?
2. Finkelstein, EA, Trogdon, JG, Cohen, JW, and Dietz, W. Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: Payer- and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs 2009; 28(5): w822-w831.
4. Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic – http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dssleep
7. How slight sleep deprivation could add extra pounds, Scientific American October 24, 2012
9. Carrell, Maghakian, & West, A’s from Zzzz’s? The Causal Effect of School Start Time on the Academic Performance of Adolescents (Aug. 2011) 3 Am. Economic J.: Economic Policy 3, pp. 62-81.)
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.
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