It's "frightening" how few young people get enough sleep, expert says

New data suggests lack of sleep early in life can raise the risk of heart disease later. Research in the journal Pediatrics connects insufficient sleep in young teens to cardiac risk factors, including high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, and obesity.

In the book "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams," published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS), Matthew Walker says sleep is underestimated as a means for preventing disease.

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Scribner

Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, told "CBS This Morning" Monday that it's "frightening" that fewer than 3 percent of young people get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night. 

What recent studies have found, he said, "is that those underslept teens had worse health outcomes, they had larger waistlines, more abdominal fat, but they were also heading on a path towards hypertension and high blood pressure. We see that same kind of heart impact in adults as well."

He said daylight saving time every spring offers a telling example: "What we see is that in the spring when we lose one hour of sleep, there's a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks the following day. So, I think the message here is that without sleep we become heartbroken in the quite literal medical sense of the definition."

Co-host John Dickerson asked, "What do we mean when we say we haven't gotten a good night's sleep? Is it just the hours, getting up at the same time each day?" 

"Regularity is a key," Walker replied. "Going to bed at the same time, waking up at the same time no matter what. But I think also it's not just about quantity – that's what we've been discovering. It's also about quality. 

"For example, even if you're getting eight hours but are waking up many more times throughout the night or you're not getting that deep sleep, what we've discovered recently is that deep sleep provides the very best form of natural blood pressure medication that you could ever wish for."

Sleep, he said, is "the elixir of life. I often say I think that sleep is like the Swiss army knife of health in that no matter what the ailment, it's more than likely that sleep has a tool within the box that will see you well."

When asked about tracking devices that measure one's sleep, like smartwatches, Walker said the technology is insufficient. "In terms of separating that quality of deep sleep from dream sleep, right now they're not at the precision level of accuracy that we want. Will we get there in the next three to five years? I suspect so."

Co-host Gayle King asked Walker if he felt that most people do not understand how serious the lack of sleep is.

"I do. I think sleep is probably the neglected stepsister in the health conversation today. I think we've done a good job regarding physical activity and diet, but sleep has remained out there in the cold, and that's surprising to me."

Walker continued, "Sleep is not the third pillar [with diet and physical activity] of good health; it's actually the foundation on which those two other things sit. For example, if you're dieting and trying to lose weight and you're not getting enough sleep, 70 percent of the weight you lose will come from lean muscle mass and not fat, because your body becomes stingy in giving up that fat when you are underslept."

"Do you think [lack of sleep] is as serious as smoking?" King asked.  

"I think we perhaps are, with sleep, where we were with smoking about 50 years ago, in that we had all of the science and it was right there for the public discussion, but it's not yet adequately sort of percolated out into policy or even just public wisdom."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.