Is Sleep the Canary of Wealth Disparities?

By Stacey McKenna


Years of scholarly study confirm that struggles correlate with troubled . Individual studies highlight the complex and multi-directional relationships between sleep, health and . Taken together, findings suggest that, compared to their wealthier counterparts, individuals who are struggling financially:

* Sleep less.

* Report unsatisfactory sleep.

* Objectively take longer to fall asleep.

* Are more likely to experience long wake episodes during the night.

These patterns are disruptive and prevent people from moving through the deepest stages of sleep, explains Dr. Erika Bagley, a Developmental Psychologist at Muhlenberg College. Thus, even when poorer individuals do manage to get enough shut-eye — which they generally don’t — it tends to be less beneficial.

While identifying the disparities in sleep patterns has been pretty straightforward, understanding exactly why they’re occurring and what to do about it remains more elusive. Yes, we know that hectic schedules, elevated stress-levels, and uncomfortable sleep environments are all pathways to uneasy sleep. But in addition to shoddy sleep, folks with less money are more vulnerable to a wealth of health problems, problems — such as diabetes and heart disease — that statistically correlate with both long-term sleep deficits and living in poverty. And while social and behavioral scientists increasingly recognize that low income and limited autonomy underpin health and sleep issues, they also, in turn, hurt economic productivity.

This conundrum leaves researchers untangling a nasty, chicken-and-egg feedback loop, struggling to identify which plight sits at the root of which. Problem-solvers, meanwhile, grapple with finding the best place to launch an attack, and often opt to target visible, individual-level symptoms rather than macro-level causes.

For example, The National Sleep Foundation publishes recommendations for improved “sleep hygiene” on its website. The list features tips such as avoiding naps, minimizing stressful conversations before bedtime, and creating a “pleasant and relaxing” sleep environment. And although these suggestions help some, they are “less achievable by people with restricted autonomy,” write Drs. Lauren and Benjamin Hale in Health Education Research.

Bagley agrees, and takes the critique a step further. “One of the things that frustrates me is there are programs that are very well-intentioned in terms of quick fixes. But the bottom line for me in terms of our research is that sleep is complicated. It’s not like putting someone in a comfortable bed is going to fix sleep, period.” Rather, she says, “I think sleep is a good indicator in terms of thinking about how well a kid is doing. So, if kids are falling asleep in schools or seeing doctors and sleep is a problem, it should prompt us to ask, What’s going on in the kid’s life that’s causing a problem? Because it’s not just about having an uncomfortable bed.”

Given sleep’s powerful association with so many other aspects of health and well-being, Bagley’s argument makes sense. Perhaps sleep is best viewed as a canary in the coal mine, highlighting deprivation and signaling a growing need for upstream solutions to our society’s health problems.

Tags:  Poverty Sleep Sleep Health Socioeconomic Wealth Disparities

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