12/03/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

Thanksgiving and Sleep Deficiency

One of most meaningful holidays for all Americans is Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November. It is the time when millions of us travel near and far by car, rail and plane sometimes enduring icy roads, crowded airports and unexpected delays to visit our friends and relatives. With the changing demographics of our country, this is sometimes the one time in the year where children get to see their parents and grandparents. As first practiced by the pilgrims, it is a time for love and expressions of gratitude to our family and friends as well as strangers. Traditionally, the only people who worked during this holiday were those few people required for essential services such as police, firefighters and hospital workers.

Juxtaposed to Thanksgiving and in stark contrast is Black Friday. It is arguably the biggest shopping day of the year, a day when retailers open their doors early, luring masses of shoppers with the promises of once in a lifetime savings on a myriad of goods. In some cases, Black Friday exposes the worse traits of the human condition with pushing, shoving, physical confrontation and in rare cases deaths related to scoring that "deal."

Until recently, there has been a clear separation between Thanksgiving and Black Friday. This year, my daughter-in-law informed me that her employer was opening its doors at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving day, following the trend established by some other larger retailers. In addition, her store was opening all night into the next day. On a personal level, this required rescheduling our Thanksgiving dinner into a luncheon, an inconvenient intrusion on this most American of all holidays. However, for some of her fellow employees this meant working a graveyard shift with its attendant impact on producing sleep loss. Over the past 50 years, the average amount of sleep obtained by Americans has decreased from about 8.5 hours per night to less than 7 hours per night. Increasing amounts of data now indicate that reductions in sleep are associated with heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and not surprisingly premature death. Furthermore, shift work has been implicated by the World Health Organization as a risk factor for cancer, particular breast cancer in women. Interestingly, some analysts have observed that there are few if any financial advantages to retailers being open on Thanksgiving Day. Nevertheless, it is likely that the "creep" of retail intrusion into holidays will continue. Will retailers soon be open 24 hours a day during the entire time between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Given the detrimental impact of sleep deficiency on health and the uncertain beneficial financial impact, should society be promoting these activities that have the potential to further encourage sleep loss? I for one think NOT. Retailers will listen to their customers. If sufficient number of consumers refuse to shop during times that should be reserved for sleep, stores will no longer be open at those times, and less sleep deprivation will occur.