Sleep's Role in Society and Policy

Event Highlights

Attendees of a March 10, 2015 RAND Policy Forum on sleep's role in society and policy

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Wendy Troxel is a sleep specialist, which was lucky for the more than 100 attendees at the RAND Policy Forum event, Sleep's Role in Society and Policy, many of whom confessed to getting fewer than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night.

But Troxel's work goes beyond giving tips to the sleep-deprived. Troxel works at the RAND Corporation, where she focuses on influencing policy decisions at the national level to improve sleep outcomes.

Why does sleep matter at the policy level? Because the cost of sleep disorders is, in Troxel's words, “at a minimum, in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” Sleep disorders are linked to mental health issues, to obesity, to cardiovascular disease, and to diabetes. Sleep affects cognition and performance. One study found that for those who slept five or fewer hours for four consecutive nights, reaction times are comparable to those for someone who is legally drunk.

There are many factors that influence sleep, including a person's genetic makeup, lifestyle, neighborhood, and culture. While policy can't change someone's genes, it can influence these other three factors. One example of where policy could have a positive effect on sleep is school start times. Troxel explains that the adolescent brain favors a late bedtime and a late wake time, but high schools often start at 7:30 in the morning. This is an example where “policy is in direct conflict with biology.”

Attendees of a March 10, 2015 RAND Policy Forum on sleep's role in society and policy

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Recently, Troxel finalized a two-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to review existing sleep policies across the DoD, the first such comprehensive review. Troxel and her team surveyed two thousand service members across all branches of the military, and found a high prevalence of insufficient sleep duration. One third of all respondents reported that, on average, they slept five hours or less per night. This is, says Troxel, “concerning for operational effectiveness and readiness.” In their report to the DoD, Troxel and her team made 16 actionable recommendations to promote sleep health across the military. As she says, “Sleep is an operational imperative.”

Troxel pointed to demographics beyond high schoolers and service members that could benefit from policy addressing sleep patterns, such as truck drivers, military spouses, and people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And then, she got to the moment everyone had been waiting for: tips for a better night's sleep.

Listen to a podcast of the event

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