Childhood sleep patterns predict risk of drug abuse, studies show

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 26 2011 1:52 p.m. MST

Recent research shows childhood sleep troubles may lead to an increased risk for depression, anxiety and drug abuse later in life.

In an article published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, scholars found that persistent sleep problems during early adolescence was a "strong predictor" of suicidal thoughts and self-harm behaviors in later years. Another study found that there is a long-reaching correlation between irregular sleep during childhood and the development of alcoholism and drug abuse in adulthood.

Maria Wong, associate professor of psychology at Idaho State University, told the National Sleep Foundation that "...over-tiredness in early childhood predicted lower response inhibition – that is, having problems inhibiting impulses and behavior – in adolescence, which predicted higher numbers of illicit drugs used."

Over-tiredness in childhood also predicts "binge drinking, blackouts, driving after drinking alcohol, and the number of lifetime alcohol problems in young adulthood," she said.

In a Wall Street Journal report, psychologists expressed hope that addressing sleep problems early on could cut down on the incidence of mental illness later on.

"We think that healthy, optimal sleep may be a buffer against developing anxiety and depression in kids," said Ronald E. Dahl, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

According to a 2004 poll by National Sleep Foundation, 69 percent children experience one or more sleep-related problems at least a few nights a week. On average, children get less sleep during a 24-hour period than experts recommend.

Snoring, trouble sleeping through the night and difficulty staying awake during the day may be signs a child has a sleep disorder, according to WebMD

The time to tackle sleep problems is before puberty, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The brains of children are far more plastic and amenable to change," said Candice Alfano, assistant professor of psychology and pediatrics at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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