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Can Race Possibly Influence Sleep?

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For years, I have had trouble sleeping. I fall asleep easily enough but usually awaken between 2 am and 4 am in the morning. I will then read the newspaper on my iPad or do some work. After an hour or so, I fall back to sleep. I have to admit that it's hard getting up when 6 am comes around.

Information released from the recent meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies reported that black participants of a study had fewer hours of sleep, just 6.8 hours compared to 7.4 hours for whites and 6.9 hours for Asians. Additionally, blacks experienced more difficulty falling asleep as well as more interrupted sleep than whites or Asians. At first, I viewed these results as good because being awake longer probably means that we can get more done in a twenty-four hour period. Enhance productivity at school or at work force may help us achieve success in situations where there is not always a level playing field. It harkens back to the old adage that to be equally as successful as others, we have to be better, smarter and more nimble than our counterparts of other races or ethnicities. With less sleep, I may be able to think more, read more, write more or simply do more.

Experts in medicine quickly pointed out the flaws in my thinking. Not sleeping restfully or long enough, they speculate, might mean that a person is not as productive during the day and also not as healthy. In fact, the question was raised if the difference in sleep may be related to or responsible for increased rates of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes that occur in many blacks.

How could race possibly influence sleep? I have always viewed sleep as a condition of life. As humans we all eat, drink, talk, love, work and sleep. The researchers postulated that race impacted sleep because the neighborhoods in which the black study subjects lived were noisier which could disturb sleep. The researchers also pointed out that the threat of crime in some black neighborhoods, could increase stress which could impact sleep. Additionally, blacks may hold several jobs or have a work schedule that is not 9 to 5.

As I could have predicted, black men slept fewer hours than members of the other groups. This fact lead various researchers to consider social stresses that African-American men, in particular, might feel as a possible cause of the differences in sleep. This is an important realization for the researchers. Despite the fact that blacks have achieved many measures of social, economic and educational success, as evidenced by our first black President, there remains vast inequities in the United States. Much to my chagrin, sleep is but another.

Susan C. Taylor, MD