Sleep deprivation and college have gone hand-in-hand for decades. Pulling all-nighters, socializing, part-time jobs all combine to make sleep an inconvenience rather than a necessity.
“There is a strong culture encouraging young people not to sleep.” said Dr. Shelley D. Hershner, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.
Hershner co-authored an article in Nature and Science of Sleep. This article reviewed relevant scientific findings, which reveal the consequences of that culture, from academic performance to public safety risks.
“Chronic sleep deprivation may impair academic performance, mood regulation, and driving safety,” wrote the authors of the article.
College and university administrators as well as students need to take steps together to ensure students receive adequate sleep to get the most out of their higher education. The solutions range from coordinating class and work schedules to accommodate sleeping patterns to simply taking time for a nap.
“Napping can help improve cognitive functioning. Even six minutes of napping has been found to improve memory by 11 percent,” said Hershner.
One article cited in Hershner’s article used a detailed online survey filled out by over a thousand college students between the ages of 17 and 24. The results found that 70 percent reported insufficient levels of sleep.
College students are naturally inclined to go to bed late and wake up late, but academic demands can complicate sleep habits. “It is hard to develop sleep patterns when their schedules and workload are up and down,” Hershner said.
And that lack of sleep contributes to a student's inability to judge the impairment insufficient sleep causes.
“A lot of students realize they are sleepy, but I don’t think they understand all of the ramifications," Hershner said. "When we are sleep deprived, we don’t judge our own ability well.”
Hershner said she treats students who cannot sleep for many reasons. Some suffer from insomnia, anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. However, most students lack sleep because they do not give themselves the opportunity to rest.
She said it is common for students to abandon adequate sleep as an attainable goal, which increases the likelihood that they will continue to perpetuate bad sleeping habits.
“I try not to push the eight hours, because it can discourage students and is not realistic in many cases," he said. "I try to encourage them to get as much sleep as possible, even if they cannot attain ideal amounts of sleep.”
Camilo Ruiz, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, said aspects of college life make it easy for students to normalize sleep deprivation. He said circumstances, such as part-time employment combined with heavy class loads, increases students' perception that sleep deprivation is unavoidable.
Brandi Dittrich, a graduate student studying environmental engineering at the University of Oklahoma, said balancing her class load with her social life is hard.
“College is a big life adjustment. When you are spending time with friends, studying and working, it can be hard to justify taking time to sleep,” she said.
A study by the academy released in June 2014 found insufficient sleep is one of the biggest factors relating to academic success. This study, which was not part of Hershner's analysis, evaluated variables that result in a low GPA, classes dropped and other academic problems. Researchers found the amount and time students slept was a better indicator of a declining GPA than binge drinking or illicit drug use.
Another study, also not included as part of the body of research analyzed by Hershner, from the Public Library of Science, tested the alertness, attention and working memory of 36 men and women after five-six days of inadequate sleep. Researchers found participants scored lower in all categories while sleep-deprived, and their alertness and attention span were most heavily impacted. Researchers also found participants who were already sleep-deprived and then went for long stretches without sleep further reduced cognitive abilities.
Ruiz said sleep is crucial in solidifying information we have learned. Sleep is what allows the body to recharge and process knowledge, putting the sleep-deprived at a disadvantage. “The many 'all-nighters' students pull in hopes of acing exams could actually be causing them to perform worse,” he said.
Problems with drowsy students are not limited to the classroom. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate 2.5 percent of fatal crashes are caused by sleepy driving.
“Most students are unaware of how severe the repercussions are. Some states you can be held criminally liable if you are driving drowsy,” Ruiz said.
According to the Centers for Disease Prevention, sleep deprivation lowers the concentration level of drivers. Twenty-four hours or more without sleep causes driving impairment higher than driving under the influence of alcohol.
“Sleep deprivation combined with even small amounts of alcohol can make the problem worse, and we know for a fact most college students are active drinkers. It is a dangerous combination,” said Hershner.
The negative effects of sleep deprivation can be averted if students take appropriate steps to incorporate sleep into their busy lives.
The first step, Ruiz said, is for students to build their schedules around their sleep patterns. Students who go to bed early should take classes in the morning, while those who sleep late should consider afternoon classes.
“Young people usually prefer to go to sleep late and wake up late. Problems can arise when they have early morning obligations,” he said.
Schools could also take steps to accommodate their students' need for sleep.
Hershner said the University of Michigan ran a popular nap room in its undergraduate library before it was shut down by the fire marshal. “I was shocked. It was created at the suggestion of students and was very popular,” she said.
She said the problem of sleep deprivation needs to be addressed on college campuses because it impacts the lives of students in many ways. “You truly cannot learn without sleep. It is a biological necessity.”
Dittrich said universities should encourage students to sleep on campus if necessary instead of driving home on little or no sleep.
“You have people who drive home after staying out really late studying. I think having a sleep center would be really helpful. Even if students could just take a nap in a quiet place before going home, that would help," she said. "I know I have driven home after studying really late because I could not stay on campus, everything closed down.”
Ruiz said better education about the need for sleep is what he believes will ultimately lead to better sleeping habits among students.
“A lot of things go on when you are asleep. We need the general population to be more aware," he said. “Sooner or later sleep deprivation will catch up with you. At some point, your body needs to get adequate rest.”