Lifestyle changes, technology and shiftwork patterns are leading to a “ticking time bomb” as people harm themselves through a lack of shuteye.
Would you take notice of a government campaign encouraging us to sleep more? No, neither would I.
But the evidence is piling up that sleep is as important as an essential vitamin.
No more so than in middle age, where research shows lack of sleep is linked to heart disease, obesity and diabetes with its lethal complications.
Academic doomsayers warn that lack of sleep is a “ticking time bomb”.
It’s a modern phenomenon. People are getting less sleep because of the greater use of phones and laptops in bed and an increase in shift work.
But that lack of sleep is also linked to a range of health problems, says Adrian Williams, professor of sleep at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust in London.
He said growing numbers of people are suffering from sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea – interrupted breathing during the night.
He said: “People don’t sleep enough in general and the amount of sleep we’re getting has reduced over the years.”
And lack of sleep can even affect our genes. Researchers at the University of Surrey believe more than 700 genes, including those linked to immunity and the control of inflammation, are altered when your sleep is less than six hours a day for a week.
This mechanism could account for why too little sleep is linked with a range of diseases.
Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology at the university, welcomed the focus on middle age.
“It’s that group that are the most sleep-deprived, probably because of greater occupational and family demands,” he said.
“We have been encouraging people to stop smoking and to get more exercise, but we have been neglecting sleep.”
Prof Dijk also said the increasing use of fitness monitors gives greater opportunity for research on the amount of sleep people are getting each night worldwide.
A 2013 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology revealed having seven or more hours of sleep raised the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
People who exercised, ate a healthy diet, didn’t smoke and drank in moderation had a 67% lower risk of dying from heart disease. But in those who also had sufficient sleep, the risk was 83% lower. That’s quite an effect just from a good night’s sleep.
Other research has shown that poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and depression.
And beware your mobile phone and tablet. Last year, a study found people using electronic gadgets for four hours before bedtime have less melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness. They also took longer to get to sleep and then slept fitfully.