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Too Much Sleep? Don't Count Sheep

People who reported sleeping more than eight hours a night have a 15% greater chance of dying, for any reason, than people who sleep seven hours a night. The same danger exists for those who sleep less than four or five hours, according to researchers from the University of California and the American Cancer Society.

The use of sleeping pills is also associated with an increased death rate of 25%. However, insomniacs were not found to have any increased risk.

"Most of the studies seem to support the idea that people who are very long sleepers and short sleepers may live less," says Dr. Phyllis Zee, director of the sleep center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. But why? Is it a sleep-related issue, or is there an underlying problem for which sleep is a symptom?? The study used data collected by the American Cancer Society in 1982 and 1988 about the sleep habits of 1.1 million men and women, ranging in age from 30 to 102. "The main implication is good news," says Dr. Daniel Kripke, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. "The average American sleeps six and a half hours [a night] and people who sleep five, six, or seven hours are perfectly safe and don't need to sleep any more."

The results of this study only show the relationship between sleep and mortality and do not explain the underlying causes. And it may not apply to the general population. "Although sizable, the study population is not a random sample and does not represent the entire population," says a representative of the National Sleep Foundation. "Geographic, racial and other factors of the study group are not indicated."

"If you have results like these, it does not mean that people need less sleep," says Zee. "It could, but I don't think that it should be interpreted that way--at least not until more studies are performed."

?There are many reasons to continue to urge people to obtain adequate sleep,? says the National Sleep Foundation. They believe that a higher risk of accidents and negative effects on the immune system are all associated with inadequate sleep. They say, "Mortality is not the only important outcome measure."

A study by Mayo Clinic sleep researchers has found more than half of the patients who consult sleep clinics are pet owners complaining of nightly sleep disturbances by their furry friends.

While 41% of sleepy pet owners said the disruptions came from letting pets share their beds, another 58% reported their sleep problems came from simply allowing their pets to sleep in the same room with them, because their snoring kept them awake. 21% of the patients slept with dogs who snored, and 7% with snoring cats.

"I suspect that the degree of sleep disruption experienced may be significantly greater than we believe," says Dr. John Shepard, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mayo Clinic.

Experts say that sleep disturbances, whether or not they are caused by pets, have both physical and mental effects. "You don't perform well, you don't make good decisions, and over time it really adds up," says Dr. Joyce Walsleben, director of sleep disorders at New York University. "Sleepy people tend to be more irritable, have a slower reaction time, and have difficulty with decision making. You can also have real problems with things such as driving."

After a few months of having their cat wake her husband up repeatedly during the night, Grace Fontana began to notice signs of sleep deprivation. "My husband definitely feels exhausted," she says. "His response and reaction time is much slower, and he is not as efficient as he normally would be. He is not getting enough of the 'good sleep.'"

"Enough of life interferes with your sleep, and a pet could certainly be removed, or have their habits changed," says Walsleben. "You probably can't control your kids coming in and waking you up, but you can control your pet."

Animal behaviorist John C. Wright says pets disturbing their owners' sleep is a big problem. "It all depends on what biological or social need [of the pet's] is not being met," he says. "You have to figure it out and address the problem.

"Cats can be just as active when you're awake as when you?re asleep," he says. "Or sometimes they're hungry because they eat a little bit 10 or 12 times a day, instead of one or two big meals. Kittens may jump up on you at night and lick or knead you. Or they're cold, and when you're lying down under the covers, cats like it because it?s warm."

For both cats and dogs, Wright recommends setting a schedule and sticking to it. "Move up your pet's feeding time so you can let them out earlier, or just don't answer them when they start to bark or cry. A few sleepless nights are worth it in the long run," he says.

Fontana says, "I think we created a monster by getting up in the first place, but then again, the low meow is harder on the ear than hearing a baby cry. It is quite obnoxious."

Insomniacs often seek distraction and some distractions work better than others, a team at Oxford University has found. "Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than [counting] the same dirty old sheep," says Allison Harvey. "Plus it's easier to stay with it because it?s more interesting."

Harvey and her colleague Suzanna Payne asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on certain nights, to see which helped them fall asleep more quickly. One group imagined a tranquil and relaxing scene such as a waterfall or being on vacation, while a second were asked to think of a distraction such as counting sheep. A third group were left on their own.

On average, the people who visualized a relaxing scene fell asleep over 20 minutes earlier than on the nights when they didn't try this technique. Both the sheep-counters and the controls who did nothing took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment. "Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away," says Harvey.

In another study, Harvey looked at a common technique for dealing with worrisome, intrusive thoughts that keep you awake, called "thought suppression." The idea is suppress an anxious or negative thought as it pops up. Harvey asked half the subjects to "suppress" their pre-sleep worries and half to follow their normal routine. The "suppression" group took about 10 minutes longer to get to sleep, showing that the technique doesn't work.

These results are an example of the classic study known as the "polar bear test." Telling someone not to think about a polar bear only winds up making them think about it even more.





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