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Is Our Sleep Deprivation Deadly?

Fatal familial insomnia is a very rare inherited disease characterized by progressively worsening insomnia, which leads to hallucinations, delirium, and symptoms similar to dementia. The average survival span for patients diagnosed with FFI after the onset of symptoms is 18 months. The scariest thing about this is that we don’t quite know why the victims are dying; what happens during sleep that is so critical? And how much harm can self-inflicted sleep deprivation do?

“I’m lucky if I get six hours of sleep a night. Usually, it’s closer to four or five,” Blair junior Sara Heilig confides. The same is true for high schoolers across the county. With the constant pressures of AP courses, SAT studying, sports teams and other extracurricular activities along with trying to maintain contact with friends and trying to enjoy hobbies like watching TV or browsing tumblr, it’s a wonder teens manage to sleep at all. However, when people aged 10 to 17 are advised to spend between 8 and 9 hours asleep, those few hours grabbed between that English essay and the morning bus may not be enough.

William Dement, founder of Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center, said, “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” But, as anyone who has ever gotten sleepy knows, this is no mean problem. How efficiently can you work when your eyes close every other second?

“I once stayed up late cramming for a Spanish test,” RM junior Sherril Han relates. “When I got to class, I felt like I was moving through soup. I could barely keep my eyes open, much less conjugate in the imperfect conditional.”

It turns out that although scientists don’t know very much about sleep, we do know that sleep and memory are undeniably linked. Studies have shown that in sleep, the brain mimics the patterns made during the day—that rehearsal may solidify any new information that brain has gained. So when we lose sleep, we actually hurt long-term potentiation, where the memories you made in class are stamped into your brain so that you can access them on test day.

Sleep goes beyond just memory reinforcement. We still don’t fully understand what sleep does for us, but studies have shown that sleep loss negatively affects the immune system and that sleep is essential for growth and development. High school attendees often treat sleep as the most disposable activity they regularly engage in, throwing it over in favor of a lab write-up or a late news article, but this could make them more susceptible to colds and slower to heal.

The situation we are caught in seems like a classic Catch-22. There’s too much work, so we stay up late to finish—but then we’re sleepy, so we take longer to do the work, so we stay up even later. And meanwhile we’re catching colds and having a harder time remembering things.

So what’s the solution?

I’m sad to say I don’t have one. I myself am writing this article at three in the morning, hoping against hope that I’ll finish soon, the quality will be decent and I’ll be able to hit the hay. Until such time as the Earth’s revolution slows sufficiently to give us a 30 hour day, we will be fighting to balance our millions of tasks and hoping the sleep we squeeze through the cracks is adequate.

Article by Sarah Wagner, MoCo Student Opinions writer

Graphic by Eva Shen of Blair HS, MoCo Student staff artist

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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