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I used to stress out if I didn’t get eight hours of sleep a night. “I’m not going to be very productive today – I didn’t get enough sleep,” I would tell myself.
Just like me, you may be even scheduling your sleep in 8-hour increments each night.
But here’s the thing: Sleeping eight hours can actually be more harmful than you think.
A 2002 study concluded that the lowest mortality rates occurred among the subjects who slept between 6.5 and 7.4 hours per night.
Basically, it means that people who slept for that amount of time each night were the healthiest among those included in the study. So, maybe, the optimal amount of time to sleep each night is less than what we’ve all been told since we were six.
For those of us who have felt guilty with each new article and doctor who frowns upon the less-than-stellar sleep habits, this is good news.
If this correlation holds true, your sleep habits might not be so bad after all.
But Don’t Be So Quick
Keep in mind that simply because the study found a correlation between sleep duration and mortality, it still doesn’t prove that less than 8 hours of sleep is better for you. But it is an interesting suggestion.
Media outlets (and, yes, even some scientists) are quick treat correlation and causation as the same thing when, in fact, it is quite possible for two factors to share a correlation, without one factor directly causing the other.
The logical fallacy of correlation-causation can lead to many false conclusions.
In this case, one study that reveals a correlation between sleep duration and mortality is not enough to prove that improper sleep duration causes or directly affects mortality rates.
There are countless other factors that can and do come in to play for both sleep duration and mortality.
For instance, diseases and disorders that contribute to mortality rates may also cause an increase in sleep duration. When you suffer from the common cold or the flu, you tend to sleep more as your body exhausts itself working to fight the illness.
Those suffering from devastating and life-threatening illnesses also tend to sleep longer as their bodies fight or succumb to said illness.
It is difficult for any study to take each and every possible factor into account. So it is possible that the sleep habits of mortally ill patients could have skewed the results of such a study (and, in turn, the conclusions drawn from said study).
Similarly, warnings that oversleeping could cause illnesses and health risks such as depression, diabetes, obesity or heart disease also fail to take other factors into account.
For example, income status, genetics and lifestyle can all contribute to mortality rates. Assuming that sleep habits cause heart disease, without accounting for these other factors, will likely result in incorrect or incomplete conclusions.
So What Does All this Say about Your Sleep Habits?
Should we return to striving for eight hours a night? Should we try for seven now? Will it really affect our health or productivity at all?
Regardless of whether or not oversleeping increases mortality, it is clear that flawed sleep habits do have a negative affect on our health, personalities, productivity and overall well-being.
Research and personal experience also makes it clear that sleep needs are highly personalized.
An adult male who repairs and operates machinery may find that his ideal sleep schedule is 7.5 hours a night, while a six-year-old girl adjusting to elementary school may require 10 hours to feel fully rested.
In fact, our sleep needs are proven to differ with age. Children and teens tend to need between eight to ten hours a day, while adult needs vary between seven to nine hours. Senior citizens may require even less.
Perfecting Your Sleep Habits
Rather than looking for a magic number to chase, try discovering your own unique sleep needs and meet them. Next time you have a free weekend, try going to bed at a decent hour—without setting an alarm—and then noting what time you naturally wake up.
This should give you a rough ideal to follow.
Sleep habits can be just as critical as how long you sleep.
Luckily, good sleep habits have a strong connection to good old common sense:
• Aim to go to sleep and wake up at a similar time each day. (Yes, even on the weekends!)
• Take 10 or 15 minutes to unwind before going to bed.
• Avoid caffeine too close to bedtime.
• Keep your bedroom free of distractions: Televisions, computers, work you’ve brought home — everything needs to go.
• Invest in a mattress and pillow that meets your body’s unique needs.
Studies will come and go, and the mythical “magic amount of sleep” will change and change again.
Focus on determining the amount of sleep that makes you feel best throughout the day, and try to stick to that pattern.
The amount of sleep that is best for someone else might not be best for you, so try not to get caught up in the latest sleep fads and studies if they go against what your body naturally tells you to do.
How much sleep do *you* think you need? Share your experiences below!