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Stop cheating on your sleep: Dal speaker

Sleep specialist Dr. James Maas told audience sleep deprivation changes your life

4 min read
Shelby Banks
caption 95 per cent of people don’t get enough sleep, said Dr. James Maas
Shelby Banks

University students are becoming the new walking zombies, sleep specialist Dr. James Maas told a group at Dalhousie University.

“Sleep … it affects your alertness, health, thinking, academic performance, social relationships – and it is the best predictor we have for how long you are going to live,” said Maas, a former Cornell University professor who is known internationally for his research on sleep.

According to Maas, 95 per cent of the population does not get the recommended nine hours of sleep per night.

About 30 people, including both students and health professionals, showed up Thursday evening to Sleep for Success, a discussion sponsored by Dalhousie’s office of Student Health Promotion.

Maas stressed that sleep deprivation leads to higher risks of:

  • Hypertension, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression
  • Influenza
  • Skin and allergy problems
  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Obesity

He started off the conversation by asking everyone how many hours of sleep they get each night. Most people indicated only five to six hours, with only two people putting up their hands for the recommended nine hours of sleep.

“In our research we found that students are moderately to severely sleep-deprived, and so are adults,” said Maas.

“Sleep affects your mood,” said Maas. “You get irritable, you get angry, and you can get clinically depressed – simply because of your sleeping.”

Seventy-five per cent of students and adults experience sleep problems at least two nights a week, said Maas. They have difficulty falling asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night, wake up too early or a combination of all three.

“We have to do something about it,” said Maas. “All of these things cause what we call daytime sleeping, which means you are going to be groggy all day and you feel a lack of mental clarity.”


Along with sleep deprivation also comes killing brain neurons. We can kill brain neurons by not sleeping for the proper number of hours, he said.

“This damage is irreversible,” said Maas.

Maas stated that the sleeping brain puts new information into long-term storage. He stressed that it is essential to put all of the newly learned information into the part of the brain that makes a physical record of the information — this is essential for memory, learning, performance, problem solving, critical thinking and how good of an athlete you could really be.

“Our research has demonstrated that you need a minimum of nine hours of sleep to put short-term memory into permanent memory,” said Maas. “You just can’t cheat on your sleep.”

“Students tell me, workers tell me to ‘get real’ because there are not enough hours in the day because they have school, work responsibilities, and would like some downtime to play golf or to be on the Internet or talk to their friends,” said Maas.

Maas stressed that you can still do all of those things — but you need to prioritize. He says people need to learn how to do the most important things first. This way, you will have time to have your nine hours of sleep per night.

Maas said he had completed an experiment with students from Massachusetts. He asked the students to get one more hour of sleep by having them come into the dorms a little earlier and have a later first-class start time.

What happened?

“There was an increase in grade point average, reduced drug use, improved athletic records, moods of the students increased, and 17 per cent more hot breakfasts were consumed,” said Maas.

“Exercise is important, nutrition is important – but neither are as important as predictors on how long you are going to live,” said Maas.

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