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How did you sleep last night? Not so well, according to half of those we asked in a sweeping survey of the nation’s sleeping habits
Woman sleeping in her seat on a train
Trouble falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and awakening too early afflict a lot of Americans these days. Fifty percent of those we asked about their most recent night of sleep reported those problems, and for many, they occur repeatedly. When asked about the previous month, 44 percent said they had one or more of those issues on at least eight nights, making them “problem sleepers.” Our survey was a nationally representative sample of 1,466 adults conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in April 2008.

The 24/7 nature of today’s world, along with continuous access to entertainment and activities, is one reason for the problem, according to the National Institutes of Health. It estimates that as many as 70 million Americans may be affected, with annual health-care expenses of $16 billion.

Another reason: health issues that interfere with sleep. For instance, 57 percent of survey respondents who said they suffered from conditions such as arthritis, back pain, or neck pain said that those ailments disrupted their sleep during the previous month.

People with sleep problems are turning heavily to medications, with some frightening results. Consider our main survey findings:

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  • Almost one in five Americans took prescription or over-the-counter medicines at least once a week to help them sleep better. Although sleep medications are usually recommended for no more than two weeks or so, 14 percent of our respondents took some type of pill on at least eight of the past 30 nights, and 5 percent turned to prescription drugs every night of the month.

  • Drug side effects occurred in 63 percent of those who took sleep medications; 24 percent became dependent on the medication they used, and 21 percent indicated that repeated use reduced the drug’s effectiveness. The most common side effect was daytime drowsiness, noted by more than a third of respondents.

  • In a parallel survey of 1,093 insomniacs, or those with chronic sleep loss, 7 percent of respondents who took a sleeping pill during the previous month reported bizarre and dangerous behavior such as sleepwalking, sleep driving, and sleep eating. Last year the Food and Drug Administration began requiring prescription sleeping-pill manufacturers to include strongly worded warnings about such possible side effects.

  • There are better ways to battle sleeplessness. Sound machines were a viable alternative to drugs when it came to treating some cases of sleeplessness, our respondents said. The machines, which emit soothing sounds such as water, wind, or chirping birds, were highly effective most of the time for many people, working almost as well as sleeping pills, minus the dangerous side effects.


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