Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth

An excellent guest post on Ryan Hurd’s Dream Studies website by A.L. Castonguay looks at sleep as a misunderstood public health issue.  Specifically, who in America is sleeping relatively well, and who is sleeping poorly?  The latter group is important to identify because inadequate sleep can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive problems–not to mention disrupted, diminished dreaming.

Castonguay draws upon data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on sleeplessness in the US to discuss factors of age, region, employment status, and obesity, among other demographic variables.  Castonguay’s analysis shows that people who most often report sleeplessness, “defined as insufficient sleep (less than 7 hours per night) on more than 14 days within the past 30, are predominantly people of color…between the ages of 25-44, unable to work, and obese.”

These findings raise a number of questions about the cultural and behavioral influences on sleep.  I have also found in previous research that poor sleep corresponds to economic anxieties and employment concerns (e.g., Chapter 5, “Work and Money,” of American Dreamers).  I just received data from a new demographic survey of American adults, and a quick scan of the results point in the same direction–people at the lower end of the income scale sleep worse than people at the top end.

The obesity figures are striking, especially when shown on a regional map of the US.  The Southern part of the US has the highest proportion both of people who are obese and who get insufficient sleep.  We don’t know what’s cause and effect, but it seems there’s a strong and dynamic relationship between the two problems.

It turns out that the states with the lowest relative frequencies of insufficient sleep are California, Oregon, and the Dakotas.  Who knew?

One point Castonguay doesn’t mention that intrigues me is the relatively good sleep of Asians and Hispanics compared to other people of color (Black, American Indian, Multiracial).  The number of participants in these racial/ethnic groups may be low and thus less statistically representative, but the figures are consistent with hints I’ve found in my own research.

If, as the topline results indicate, culture plays a role in quality of sleep, we need a lot more detailed information about how individual people’s sleep experiences are shaped by the multiple strands of cultural influence, including ethnic background, economic status, education, family life, and eating behaviors.


One Reply to “Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth”

  1. Being myself multiracial (Mexican-Indian, White, Romany) and having lived in a number of neighborhoods where different races predominated, I would hazard a guess (which future researchers can check out) that the reason Asians and Hispanics get more sleep than Black, American Indian and Multiracial people (on the average) is that the former have strong and extended family ties, and in this they have a strong support network, whereas the latter group has historically suffered disruption of the family, to such an extent that it’s taking generations to recover.

    Whether you’re ancestors were slaves whose family could be split up at any time at a master’s whim, or students at government boarding schools with an overt agenda of severing ties with your family, the very concept became devalued, as something that your elders survived without. Multiracials also often become dislodged from extended family due to the disapproval on one or both sides of their parents marrying across taboo boundaries.

    In contrast, both Asians and Mexicans have cultures that emphasize family, with strong social sanctions against those who neglect familial ties. Both have an ancestral heritage of long periods of separation from family (Asians were not allowed to bring spouses to America during a large chunk of our history, and job-seeking immigrants from Latin America have often had to leave family behind) but in both cases the individuals in this country had strong obligations to send money home–their connection did not vanish with distance. This material duty underlined a safety net–if they fell on hardships, they could also count on family to bail them out. In the case of Blacks and Indians, though, an outside force discouraged or forbade outright continuing ties during periods of separation.

    It could be that people sleep most deeply when they have the most confidence that somebody’s got their back.

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