David walked in late to a presentation I was giving on managing insomnia. I’d surveyed my audience and launched into a talk for retirees. But here was David, a high school teacher in his twenties, and I realized I was going to have to change the remarks I was about to make.
We think of insomnia as mainly an affliction of older adults. But the facts don’t bear this out. Data collected from the U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System showed the following:
- Reports of sleep disturbance were highest among adults in the youngest age group, 18-24.
- Tiredness and lack of energy were also highest among adults ages 18-24.
What’s more, 42% of the nearly 2,400 young adults surveyed in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health reported insomnia symptoms. That’s higher than the national average of 30%. What’s behind the sleep problems of millennials, the generation that started coming of age at the turn of the century?
Drivers of Insomnia in the Young
Trouble sleeping in millennials may be due to a circadian phase delay. The internal circadian period, which in humans averages a little more than 24 hours, expands in adolescence (for reasons unknown) and this longer circadian period can continue as people move into their twenties. The result is that they want to stay up late and get up later in the morning. Sleep preferences that conflict with school and work schedules are a setup for insomnia.
The phase delay could be exacerbated by use of blue light-emitting devices at night, which I blogged about last week.
But David had a different explanation for his insomnia. “I have trouble falling asleep sometimes,” he said. “But the main problem is that I wake up 2 hours before my alarm goes off. Either I go into a very light sleep or I don’t get back to sleep at all. It’s probably due to stress.”
Stress and Sleep Disturbance
Stress may well figure as one of the main culprits when insomnia shows up in the young. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America survey showed that reports of lying awake at night due to stress were highest among the youngest adults and fell off as people aged. Here are the figures:
- 52% of millennials reported stress-related insomnia, as did
- 48% of gen Xers
- 37% of baby boomers, and
- 25% of seniors.
As for the main source of stress, millennials and gen Xers were most likely to say they were stressed by work, money and job stability. With unemployment among millennials running in the double digits for 6 years now and the average student loan debt at $30,000, it’s hardly surprising that employment and financial concerns would sabotage the sleep of the young.
Sacrificing Sleep to Get Ahead
Not only are young adults losing sleep to worry about money and jobs. TODAY.com has just publicized results of a Snooze or Lose survey that shows that millennials, much more than any other age group, believe that to get ahead in their careers, they must survive on less sleep. Here are the numbers:
- 33% of adults ages 18-34 endorsed this belief, as did
- 19% of adults ages 35-54, and
- 6% of adults ages 55 and above.
Currently there’s a drive to raise awareness about sleep issues in teens. But I don’t see an effort being made to address the sleep problems of young adults trying to gain a toehold in the job market. Why not? Twenty-somethings who struggle with insomnia may cope with it in unhealthy ways, and once insomnia becomes chronic, it puts even the young at risk for depression, obesity and heart attacks.
Why not launch a public health campaign aimed at helping the young and sleepless at a time of life when the help would do most good?
If you’re in your twenties and have trouble sleeping, what do you think is the single biggest cause of your insomnia?