Why can't we sleep? TODAY 'Snooze or Lose' survey results may surprise you

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By Meghan Holohan

Starting today, TODAY launches its weeklong "Snooze or Lose" series with a commissioned survey exploring why Americans can't sleep. 

We crave more time in the bedroom, complaining that we don’t get enough. But it’s more sleep—not sex—we want. In fact, Americans feel so deprived that almost half of adults — 65 percent of women — prefer a good night’s sleep over sex, according to the TODAY "Snooze or Lose" Sleep Survey.

No doubt, sleep is precious, so valued that 72 percent of adults agree it's one of the great pleasures of life. Yet we're frustrated in our quest for a good night's rest: 46 percent of adults over age 18 say they don't get enough. It's even worse for women, with 58 percent over 18 falling short of their ideal goal of just over eight hours of sleep a night. 

If we realize that sleep is so important, why do we have so much trouble getting it? Job stress, children and technology are getting in the way of uninterrupted, deep sleep, the TODAY survey of more than 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older found. 

“That’s the million dollar question,” says Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. “Other responsibilities often take precedence and sleep is considered an elective task.”

The survey results certainly reflect this.  

  • 33 percent of 18-to-34 year-olds believe to get ahead in their careers, they must survive on less sleep; while 19 percent of 35-to-54 year-olds and only 6 percent for the 55 + crowd think this.
  • 40 percent of 18-to-34 year-olds, 33 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds, and 11 percent of people 55 + believe that if they want to work and care for their families they must do so on less sleep than needed.
  • 64 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds, 49 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds, and 35 percent of those 55 + agree that being able to survive on less sleep would be an advantage. 

When we do find time to snooze, we often struggle to fall sleep or stay asleep. Work stress keeps many awake:

  • 32 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds say work makes them fret throughout the night.
  • 31 percent say that their children cause sleepless nights. 

When it comes to children, interrupted sleep seems unavoidable and 42 percent of people with a child under 18 report inadequate sleep.

Our tethers to technology also may negatively affect our ability to fall and stay asleep:

  • 51 percent of people have TV remote within reach
  • 50 percent of people have their smartphones within reach
  • 23 percent of people have a computer within reach
  • 21 percent of people have a tablet within reach
  • Only 1 in 5 adults doesn’t sleep with any device within reach

Seventy-seven percent of participants 35-49 said they watched TV right before bed, with almost two-thirds of 18-34-year-olds using their smartphones before sleep. 

“Watching TV and working on the Internet may have a mentally stimulating [effect],” says Dr. Harneet Walia, of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic. “The light may [affect] the circadian rhythm.”

Who we sleep with also plays a huge role. About half, 47 percent, of people sleep solo.

  • 53 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds sleep alone
  • 39 percent of 35 to 49-year-olds sleep alone
  • 48 percent of 55 + sleep alone 

Avidan of UCLA notes that when one partner has a sleep disorder, the other bedmate tends to feel it. “The person with the sleep problem is often unaware and the person without the problem suffers,” he says.

It's not just interruptions: insomnia is a big problem, with 61 percent of the survey participants reporting problems falling and staying asleep. 

According to previous studies, chronic insomnia affects as many as 10 percent of adults, but "most of those [people] remain untreated because they are not diagnosed," Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a professor at Mayo Clinic, told TODAY.

Inadequate sleep isn't just a minor annoyance: it can affect our health, behavior, relationships and careers, the TODAY survey found. Eighty percent of people who don’t get adequate sleep report experiencing more stress about finances and 74 percent were more worried about their health.

Sleep experts agree. “There is more and more science that show a close linkage between overall health and good sleep,” says Morgenthaler.

Over the past month, there were many side effects of sleeplessness: 

  • Overall 29 percent had difficulty concentrating; among 18 to 34-year-olds that number increased to 39 percent
  • 23 percent had difficulty performing chores
  • 19 percent lost interested in hobbies and leisure activities
  • 16 percent reported falling asleep at inappropriate times during the day
  • 16 percent experienced short tempers or inappropriate behavior with children or partners
  • 13 percent reported short tempers or inappropriate behavior at work

Short-term sleep deprivation causes people to suffer from cognitive impairment, including confused thinking, slower reaction times, and symptoms that mimic depression and anxiety, studies show. In the long term, poor sleep leads to weight-gain, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.

With chronic sleep loss a person becomes “very similar to a patient with diabetes,” says Avidan. “The body doesn’t know how to handle blood sugar.”

While the news might seem bleak, don’t fear. Some sleep problems are temporary and sleep medicine experts can treat the ones that aren’t.

“Everybody has problem sleeping sometimes. Sometimes it is very easy to identify the source of the problem. Oftentimes you can remove the [problem],” says Morgenthaler. 

Tune into TODAY all week for more insight on America's quest for sleep and expert help on how to get a better night's rest.

(You can find more about the TODAY Snooze or Lose Sleep Survey methodology here)