Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem

Published on: Jun 21, 2024

You’re sitting at your desk at work, trying to pay attention to the Zoom meeting on the computer in front of you, but your eyelids continue to flutter open and closed. You just woke up in the middle of the afternoon from a nap you took accidentally, realizing you slept through that lunch with friends you planned to attend. You’re studying for that last history exam and cannot seem to remember that one last fact about Napoleon due to the foggy feeling that has engulfed your brain. 

All these examples are relatable times in which people have experienced the impacts of sleep deprivation. 

While we can all think of times we have had moments similar to these examples, many people do not understand the true health risks associated with sleep deprivation at both an individual and a population level. It’s estimated that 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, meaning they are deprived of adequate sleep, and about 1 in every 3 American adults does not get the uninterrupted amount of sleep necessary to safeguard their health.1 Sleep deprivation represents a significant, unmitigated public health problem, a harrowing reality that this article will further explore by examining causes, consequences, and possible solutions.

In this article, we will define sleep deprivation; discuss its causes, contributing factors, and consequences; and highlight why this represents a public health issue.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation refers to the condition in which a person is not getting enough or enough quality sleep. People can suffer from sleep deprivation during a short time or over an extended time, with negative health impacts growing the longer the length of sleep deprivation. Insomnia differs from the term sleep deprivation in that insomnia specifically refers to a condition in which people cannot sleep when they are actively trying to rest. Sleep deprivation is any period in which a person is not achieving adequate sleep2

Sleep deprivation occurs in clinically outlined stages. When people have gone at least 24 hours without sleeping, they enter stage 1. During this stage, people’s symptoms manifest similarly to those seen when under the influence of alcohol. This means that once stage 1 has been achieved, it is unsafe for the afflicted person to drive. In stage 2, these symptoms amplify. This stage is characterized by a lack of ability to focus or think clearly2 as well as microsleeps, occurrences in which a person falls asleep for a few seconds and that, thus, can be dangerous if a person is engaging in an activity such as operating machinery3. In stages 3 and 4, these symptoms continue to intensify, with afflicted people often experiencing severe hallucinations and an inability to communicate with those around them2.

Sleep deprivation is diagnosed by a licensed clinician after they collect information about symptoms, health history, and routines. Further testing, however, is often suggested to assess for the presence of contributing or resulting conditions related to sleep deprivation. Therefore, it is common for healthcare providers to suggest testing such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), actigraphy, sleep apnea testing, multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), and the maintenance of wakefulness test (MWT)2.

Recommended sleep durations, the benchmarks for determining if one is getting the proper amount of sleep or is experiencing sleep deprivation, vary based on age. The CDC outlines the following sleep duration recommendations4:

Age Range

Amount of Sleep Suggested

0-3 months

14-17 hours

4-12 months

12-16 hours

1-2 years

11-14 hours

3-5 years

10-13 hours

6-12 years

9-12 hours

13-17 years

8-10 hours

18-60 years

7 or more hours

61-64 years

7-9 hours

65 years and older

7-8 hours

While these recommendations are helpful, particularly from a population-level perspective, the adequate amount of sleep a person needs is unique to them as it is impacted by genetic and environmental factors, amongst other things. Thus, individualized care plans are necessary when diagnosing and treating sleep deprivation5.

Causes and Contributing Factors

There are many lifestyle factors, medical conditions, and environmental issues that can cause or contribute to sleep deprivation. Some life circumstances that can result in sleep deprivation include engaging in shift work (especially if the shifts are overnight), high stress levels, and attempting to sleep in new environments (like hotels when traveling). Consumption of alcohol or stimulants like caffeine later in the day can result in sleep deprivation as well. Medical conditions that can cause sleep deprivation include degenerative neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, sleep apnea, short-term illnesses such as the flu, insomnia, and chronic pain2

Poor sleep hygiene is an additional factor that can cause sleep deprivation. Stimulants and inconsistent sleep schedules (often impacted by shift work), as mentioned previously, contribute to one’s sleep hygiene as this concept includes any elements of the sleep-related environment or behaviors. In the modern, technological era, sleep hygiene patterns amongst the population have been particularly damaged, exacerbating concerns of an epidemic related to sleep deprivation6. Smartphone use around bedtime has been found to contribute negatively to sleep quality7. Hours of screentime of any kind have been found to also cause sleep deprivation by disrupting melatonin cycles8. In today’s culture, many adults also work from home. If work enters too heavily into the home and bedroom, it can also impact one’s sleep hygiene by creating a less sleep-focused environment and stress surrounding a constant ability to work rather than destressing in the home9.

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

There are consequences associated with both short-term and long-term sleep deprivation. Short-term sleep deprivation can impair judgment, ability to learn, retain information, communication skills, and mood regulation. It can also increase one’s risk of accident/injury, as highlighted in the stages of sleep deprivation outlined previously10. Studies have shown that those reporting six or fewer hours of sleep per night have an increased risk of crashing a motor vehicle compared to those getting more than 6 hours of sleep per night, especially later in the day and the early morning11

Long-term sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of chronic illness. These illnesses include cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, and dementia12. Long-term sleep deprivation can also result in an increased risk of infectious diseases and diminished ability to recover from infections, as a lack of sleep negatively impacts the proper functioning of the immune system13. Additionally, lacking sleep or poor sleep quality increases the risk of mental health disorders. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Aside from psychiatric disorders, a lack of sleep contributes overall to worsened mental health as people experience a diminished ability to regulate emotions and successfully cope with stress14.

Addressing the Problem: Strategies and Solutions

Strategies to address sleep deprivation on an individual level are well-documented and published. Creating and maintaining a sleep schedule is an important way to improve one’s sleep. This entails allocating adequate hours for sleep, establishing a relaxing nightly routine, and waking up at the same time every day. Ensuring an ideal sleeping environment is also critical to optimal sleep hygiene. A cool, dark, and quiet environment helps many people achieve quality sleep. Another method for alleviating sleep deprivation is being mindful of what you eat and drink. Reducing consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can be very helpful, as well as avoiding heavy meals too close to bedtime.  Limiting daytime naps, employing stress management tactics, and including physical activity in one’s daily routine are also all mechanisms for decreasing sleep deprivation on an individual level15.

Addressing sleep deprivation at a population level can involve implementing many different programs. Employers can help their employees by respecting the importance of adequate sleep through cultural elements (like disincentivizing working after hours) and providing access to amenities like gyms and napping booths. There have also been technological advancements, such as consumer wearables, that have increased in popularity in recent years and helped many people learn more about their sleep patterns16. Sleep quality assessments are also an important tool for clinicians to utilize to catch poor sleep habits early and prevent increased risks of morbidities in the long term amongst patients17

Implementing educational initiatives can also help address issues of sleep deprivation early, hopefully preventing future health afflictions. Studies have shown that teachers can effectively implement sleep education into existing curricula and, thus, assist their students with improving their sleep habits18.  

Addressing sleep deprivation is critical for improving public health.

There are recommendations surrounding how much sleep a person needs based on age, but, ultimately, one’s necessary amount of sleep is determined individually. The symptoms of sleep deprivation increase as the duration without sleep or quality sleep elongates. Many Americans struggle with getting enough sleep and achieving high sleep quality, increasing their risks of infectious and chronic diseases, both physical and mental. These issues can be addressed at an individual level with behavioral and environmental changes and at a population level utilizing clinical, educational, technological, and employer initiatives. 

Find ways to improve your sleep hygiene today, and work to promote the implementation of programs that can improve the health of the public by decreasing the prevalence of sleep deprivation. 

About the Authors

Written by:

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz is a graduate student currently pursuing her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in epidemiology with a certificate in health policy and practice at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. At Columbia, she engages deeply in the community by serving as a peer advocate in the Sexual Violence Response program, a teaching assistant for multiple courses, a leader in the Student Well-Being Collective for Mental Health Literacy, and a mentor to first-year students in her certificate program. Academically, she is currently working toward completion of her thesis which focuses on psychiatric-physical comorbidities amongst the children of 9/11 first responders. 

Prior to starting her program at Columbia, Ms. Sturtz attained her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in biology and a minor in English. After completion of her undergraduate studies, she worked at Jhpiego where she was seconded to the Baltimore City Health Department. In this role, she helped bring vaccines, other medical resources, and health information to underserved communities within Baltimore city as part of the pandemic response. 

Opinions and information published by the author on are her own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of her employer.

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz


Education: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Knowledge: Epidemiology and Community Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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