It’s free, evidence-based and can improve your memory, increase your ability to concentrate, strengthen your immune system and decrease your risk of being killed in accidents. We’re not talking about the latest wonder drug here but the practice of getting a regular 8 hours of sleep a night.  Despite the multiple benefits of adequate sleep up to a third of all Australians struggle to get to sleep and/or stay asleep every night, according to recent research.  This ‘sleep debt’ is not just a problem for individuals but a major public health issue with an estimated economic impact of $5.1 billion annually.  In the latest issue of JournalWatch Dr Melissa Stoneham explains why this study has major public health and social policy implications for Australia.  

Melissa writes:

 Did you know that by the time you reach 80 years, you will have invested 28 years of your life in sleep? No wonder my 9 year old tells me he has better things to do with his time than sleep!

But if you have ever fallen face first onto the table during a meeting because you happened to have nodded off, you will know that sleep plays a vital role in good health and wellbeing. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life and safety. Despite this well-known fact, recent research identified that up to a third of Australian adults regularly struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep, according to a survey of over 1500 people. This research also identified that we are getting an hour and a half less sleep than we were 15 years ago.

These and other facts were highlighted by David Hillman, who heads the Department of Pulmonary Physiology and Sleep Medicine at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, and is a Director of the West Australian Sleep Disorders Research Institute. The article, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, aimed to describe the public health implications of sleep loss in terms of economic, social and health impacts based on results from a recent evaluation of the sleep habits of Australian adults.

The landline telephone survey, which was administered nationally, contained 14 questions about sleep: five about sleeping difficulty, two about snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), one about restless legs, one about sleeping medication, three about daytime impairments usually associated with sleep disturbance and two about nocturnal sleep duration (weekdays and weekends). There were 1512 respondents from all states and territories, both urban and rural, with sampling proportionate to the populations of those areas, sex and age. So what did they find?

The results illustrated that a considerable proportion of Australians report frequent sleeping difficulties. Overall, 20 per cent of respondents reported having frequent difficulty in falling asleep, which was more prevalent among females and younger age groups. Frequent waking during the night was reported by 35 per cent overall, again more commonly among females but increasing with age. Thirty-five per cent reported waking unrefreshed and 24 per cent reported inadequate sleep. Daytime sleepiness, fatigue or exhaustion and irritability were also common issues (19%–24%).

The authors suggest that poor sleep and its consequences result in significant costs to the community and reference a Deloitte’s report which estimated the economic impact of sleep disorders includes costs to Australia of $5.1 billion per year.  Of this, $800 million are direct health care costs of sleep disorders such as insomnia or apnoea, with the balance of $4.3 billion mainly attributable to productivity losses and non-health costs of sleep loss-related accidents.

The article concludes with a statement that poor or inadequate sleep is very common among Australian adolescents and adults, affecting over 20 per cent on a daily or near-daily basis. About half this problem, the authors suggest, can be attributable to common sleep disorders which affect about 10 per cent of the community. The balance appears likely to be the result of inadequate sleep arising from other health problems or issues such as poor sleep habits or sleep loss because of competing demands on time from work, social or family activities.

So for all the night owls and those who argue that they get by just fine on very little sleep, maybe it is time to try a free, daily treatment that will improve your memory, increase your ability to concentrate, strengthen your immune system and decrease your risk of being killed in accidents – 8 hours of sleep a night! On a community wide scale, we should continue with our driver reviver campaigns that aim to reduce fatigue related crashes by encouraging travellers to take regular breaks.  Australia might also like to consider an intervention similar to the one facilitated by the National Sleep Foundation in America, which in cooperation with many partner organisations, established National Sleep Awareness Week which is promoted each Spring at the commencement of daylight savings. Or here is another suggestion – a bedroom poll – check it out!


Public health implications of sleep loss: the community burden.David Hillman & Leon Lack; Medical Journal of Australia 2013; 199 (8): S7-S10.


About JournalWatch

The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.

The Journals reviewed include:

Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)

Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)

Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)

Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

The Lancet

Journal for Water Sanitation and Hygiene Development

Tobacco Control (TC)

American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)

Health Promotion International (HPI)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

These reviews are then emailed to all JournalWatch subscribers and are placed on the PHAIWA website. To subscribe click to Journal Watch click here.


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