Sleep, good. Death, bad

That most august body, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, has issued a new position statement.1 Let’s be clear: position statements are not to be trifled with. They are essential, flag-in-the-ground utterances that brook no dissent and give organizations direction and focus.

And so here is the AASM’s new position statement: Sleep is important. 

It does make us wonder what the previous one was. Perhaps, Sleep? Take it or leave it.  Or maybe: Sleep? Whatever. 

Tired of beating around the bush, the AASM has finally got the bit between its organizational teeth and come out with all guns blazing. Hell, sleep is good, and it’s important for our health!  

As with any challenge, coming up with a new position statement isn’t something you can just do in your sleep. The academy’s board of directors, comprising 11 “sleep medicine physicians” and a clinical psychologist, pondered long and hard before arriving at it.

The statement has a trickle-down effect, touching on many aspects of society. Schools, universities and even medical colleges need to be telling students: Get some sleep! 

The same goes for family physicians. Don’t be surprised if your doctor casually asks you, “So, how are you sleeping?” With a knowing nod, you’ll see who’s behind the question.

There should also be more “workplace interventions.” Bosses need to counsel staff to ensure they are sleeping enough; if they’re not sleeping in their beds, they should do so at their desks. Sleep is important!

The AASM puts it more snappily. “More sleep and circadian research is needed to further elucidate the importance of sleep for public health and the contributions of insufficient sleep to health disparities.” Don’t nod off—or perhaps that was the point. Clever!

Not to be outdone at the Department of Very Obvious Statements, a multinational study team including researchers from 42 academic centers in 14 countries has come up with something just as eye-opening: We will die. Nope, doesn’t matter what you do, there’s no escaping death.2

“Human death is inevitable. No matter how many vitamins we take, how healthy our environment is or how much we exercise, we will eventually age and die,” said the team’s lead author, Fernando Colchero. Probably hard to believe, but we’ve been assured that he is “an expert in applying statistics and mathematics to population biology,” so he should know.

The team didn’t come to its verdict easily. It dug into “a wealth of data” from nine different human populations and even compared them with 30 nonhuman primate groups, including gorillas, chimpanzees and baboons, and guess what? They all died. Every last one of them, gorilla or grunt, they were all pushing up the daisies, eventually.

But what seems like a simple truth to us was demoted to a mere hypothesis by the researchers. “Yeah, we’ve heard the one about us all dying, but where’s the proof?” they asked, as one.

Of course, longevity varies from country to country. People tend to live longer in Japan and Sweden, for instance, and it seems almost to be a communal activity, as they do so in clusters. Almost rude to die prematurely in those cultures.

It’s also changed through the ages. The lifespan in those two countries was much shorter in the 1800s, as it was in most countries, and our increased lifespan has more to do with better sanitation, hygiene and nutrition than medical interventions.

Medicine has had a hand in reducing the rate of infant deaths (as have sanitation, hygiene and nutrition), and that had been a drag on average life expectancy. But lest we forget, it’s a tragedy that may have been all but eradicated in the West, but not in other parts of the world.

Our chances of living a long life have improved, and perhaps we can find a way to slow the aging process. We may be able to maintain good health into old age without suffering the aches and pains many of us endure now. Medical science could help us live longer, too. 

Extending longevity is endlessly fascinating to the likes of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and they are helping fund techniques that increase life expectancy to 120. Even 140 may be achievable.

But, at the end of one day, we will die, and for the other days, we will sleep. And thanks to medical research, we now know that one is inevitable, and the other important.

References

1 

J Clin Sleep Med, 2021; doi: 10.5664/jcsm.9476

2

Nat Commun, 2021; 12: 3666