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Sleep deprivation: Six ways being tired can damage your life


In April 1970, Frank Cole was driving home from a party to his parents' home in Melbourne when he began to feel drowsy.
In the chilly early hours of Sunday morning, the 21-year-old had on the heater in his EJ Holden and was following his cousin's car.
But after a week working on a sheep farm he was exhausted, and soon felt his eyelids getting heavy.
"I felt myself drifting off, then the next thing I knew I had wrapped my car around a power pole," Mr Cole said.
He was later to learn he had broken his neck and jaw, and would need to spend months in hospital before he was well.
It is a stark reminder of the dangers of sleep deprivation, a condition that nearly cost Mr Cole his life, and which is becoming more common in the developed world.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 have both been linked to sleepy workers.
"It is quite likely that sleep is serving an absolutely fundamental process," said Dr Amy Jordan, a sleep expert and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's psychology department.
"If you take rats and sleep deprive them continuously, they will die after about 20 days.
"It is not like they all die from heart attacks ... They actually die from complex and various reasons."
And yet people continue to ignore their body's needs.
Soaring rates of sleep disorders
Everyone knows they feel better after a good night's sleep, but new research is starting to unlock the secrets of how, with evidence that sleep affects the body in ways that were completely unimaginable just a decade ago.
Scientists are starting to figure out how sleeplessness impacts on cancer, Alzheimer's disease, obesity and poor school results, among other things.
It is alarming stuff, particularly when you look at the skyrocketing rates of sleep disorders diagnosed in Australia.
The latest figures available from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that in 1998–99 there were about 26,000 people who left hospital after being admitted principally because of a diagnosis of a sleep disorder.
Since then the number has risen each year, to be almost 75,000 in 2012–13, the most recent year for which figures exist.
Every mammal, reptile and bird on earth dozes off at some point, but scientists are only just beginning to understand the importance of sleep, and what our disregard for normal sleep patterns is doing to our health.
A restful sleep may be just as important as stopping smoking when it comes to improving health.
Sleep deprivation can be expensive, too.
A Deloitte Access Economics study in 2010 found it was costing Australia an estimated $36.4 billion each year, although it said the figure could be much higher.
Melinda Jackson, a senior research fellow at RMIT University's Health Sciences school, has investigated sleep's effect on the body.
She said despite a commonly held belief that people could easily catch up on a string of late nights by having a long sleep on weekends, it may actually be much harder to regain normal functioning once we have become sleep deprived.
"Fantastic data has just come out, laboratory data, that has shown that after a week of sleep restriction it might actually take five nights of 12 hours' time in bed for someone's performance to come back to their baseline level," Dr Jackson said.
It is a common myth that people who deal with sleep deprivation on a regular basis become immune to the impact of sleep loss or learn to cope with it.
"We actually published a paper last year at the Austin Hospital comparing truck drivers to non-professional drivers. We looked at their responses to sleep deprivation, and the truck drivers were just as susceptible to the effects of sleep loss as non-professional drivers," Dr Jackson said.
The 24-hour work cycle of modern society and the ubiquitous forms of brain stimulants such as smart phones, tablets and TVs are causing people to drift from the in-built circadian rhythm that our bodies have been created to work within over many thousands of years.
 

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