NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ It’s probably safe to say that Dr. Andrea Spaeth has lost sleep over how others are sleeping. Call it an occupational hazard that comes with being the director of the Rutgers Sleep Lab.

When a study revealing that people haven’t been getting their Zzzs during the COVID-19 pandemic comes across your desk, however, it’s a bit of a wake-up call.

“One study, this was early in the pandemic, showed that 25% of participants reported poor sleep since the pandemic has started,” Spaeth said. “If that's true now, I don't know for sure, but it's probably pretty fair to say that a good proportion of the population is experiencing worse sleep because of the pandemic.”

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Widespread illnesses, social isolation, personal financial situations, nationwide economic forecasts, fear of becoming ill — there are any number of facets to the COVID-19 pandemic that could keep us up at night.

Spaeth said those who devote their lives to unlocking the mysteries of that magical realm known as sleep will likely be studying for years the effects of COVID-19 and other headline-grabbing events of 2020 — such as the presidential election and the racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May.

The totality of these unprecedented times — and how they’ve affected our sleep — will probably not be put into proper context for a while. Maybe years.

There are two facts that Spaeth knows right here, right now.

First, long before James Cai, a 32-year-old physician assistant in Fort Lee, became the first person in New Jersey to be diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 4, Americans were not sleeping well.

Spaeth said that about a third of the population was habitually not sleeping the minimum recommended seven hours a night and racking up sleep debt.

“People who don't get enough sleep are at increased risk for obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes,” she said. “So, it has an important impact on health. You're at increased risk for car accidents and safety issues, workplace safety problems. So, injuries are more likely. And then, of course, it's associated with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.”

The other fact that Spaeth knows, without need for voluminous scientific findings, is that sleep has been getting a bad reputation.

Among the highly caffeinated of us, sleep has become synonymous with laziness and over-indulgence instead of being cherished as a vital part of keeping us human beings physically and mentally well.

Spaeth and the other researchers at the Rutgers Sleep Lab aren’t taking that lying down.

Spaeth, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health, helped establish the Sleep Lab in 2018.

She described the lab’s space inside the Leonor F. Loree building on the New Brunswick campus as pretty ordinary, but the work being done there is anything but. In pre-COVID times, she and her colleagues were busy testing high school kids’ sleep patterns. They also have a facility inside Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital where they can do overnight sleep studies.

That sleep is getting a bad name is “something we're really trying to push back on,” Spaeth said. “It's so bizarre that there [are] people bragging about that (getting by on little sleep). It’s like eating. It’s a biological imperative.”

 

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