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Why Zzz's get degrees: The case for later school start times

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 4:10 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 1:57 p.m. MDT

Sleep deprivation has become so prevalent around the nation that many think an extra hour or two of sleep will improve grades.

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As the summer days of waking up just before noon yield to pre-sunrise first period classes, so comes chronic sleep deprivation among American teens.

The median school start time is 8 a.m. across the country, but schools in a handful of states are shifting to a 7 a.m. start time. This move to an earlier school day was made to accommodate new curriculum, but sleep researchers are saying that this is the worst thing they could have done.

“The empirical evidence [of] the negative repercussions of chronic sleep loss on health, safety and performance in adolescents … has been steadily mounting for over [a] decade,” Judith Owens, a pediatrician, told The Atlantic's Jessica Lahey.

A study published this spring by Dr. Kayla Wahlstrom, which looked at over 9,000 students, found that schools that started later saw a jump in standardized test scores and improved grades across the board, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Additionally, those school districts saw a 65 to 70 percent drop in car accidents involving teens, reported The Atlantic.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools should not begin before 8:30 a.m., with an ideal start time of 10 a.m.

“The evidence is clearly mounting … and there is also solid compelling data supporting the fact that delaying school start times is a very important intervention that can mitigate some of the impact of sleep loss,” Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, told Time.

Knowing that teens need an average of 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep is not new, but knowing why it’s so difficult for them to get proper sleep on a normal 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule was one of the focuses of the research.

The AAP researchers found that teens’ schedule of late to bed, late to rise has nothing to do with bad habits or rebellious tendencies and everything to do with brain chemistry.

“Teens stay up later not because they don’t want to go to sleep, but because they can’t,” Lahey reported. “Due to the delayed release of melatonin in the adolescent brain and a lack of ‘sleep drive’ in response to fatigue, teens do not feel sleepy until much later at night than young children or adults and have difficulty falling asleep, even when they are tired.”

According to Wahlstrom, a teen’s brain, already hormonally out of balance, does not properly create or respond to sleep hormones. The research showed that even in states of “exhaustion,” teens found it difficult to fall asleep before midnight.

If the average teenager isn’t going to sleep until after midnight and waking up between 6 and 7 a.m., that is only giving them six to seven hours of sleep, assuming they don’t wake up during the night.

“A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights,” The Washington Post reported.

Owens explained to NBC News that sleep deprivation works like monetary debt, the more sleep you miss the more sleep debt you acquire and one night of good sleep is not enough to make up for previous nights without sufficient sleep.

When teens miss out on two to three hours of sleep, by the end of one school week they’ve lost 10 to 15 hours of sleep that needs to be accounted for.

“These kids are essentially in a permanent state of jet lag,” Owens told NBC News.

In addition to the cognitive issues of sleep deprivation in teens, AAP researchers say that it can also lead to obesity later in life, increasing risks of heart disease and diabetes.

Owens asked in The Atlantic that if these problems can be addressed and rectified “with something as easy as started school later, why would we not do it?”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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