How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race

Douglas Quenqua, New York Times, August 20, 2012

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The idea that race or ethnicity might help determine how well people sleep is relatively new among sleep researchers. But in the few short years that epidemiologists, demographers and psychologists have been studying the link, they have repeatedly come to the same conclusion: In the United States, at least, sleep is not colorblind.

Non-Hispanic whites get more and better-quality sleep than people of other races, studies repeatedly show. Blacks are the most likely to get shorter, more restless sleep.

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“We’re not at a point where we can say for certain is it nature versus nurture, is it race or is it socioeconomics,” said Dr. Michael A. Grandner, a research associate with the Center for Sleep and Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. {snip}

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The latest evidence that race and ethnicity can affect sleep came in June at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, held in Boston. In one of two studies on the topic presented there, white participants from the Chicago area were found to get an average of 7.4 hours of sleep per night; Hispanics and Asians averaged 6.9 hours and blacks 6.8 hours. Sleep quality—defined as ease in falling asleep and length of uninterrupted sleep—was also higher for whites than for blacks.

While those findings are consistent with earlier studies, this one, led by Dr. Carnethon, adjusted for risk factors like cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea and obesity. {snip}

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The idea that differences in work and living conditions can explain the racial sleep disparities is a popular one among sleep experts. But studies that have accounted for those factors suggest a more complex reality.

One such study from 2005—also taking place in Chicago—measured sleep among 669 participants while adjusting for education, income and employment status. In the end, black men on average still slept 82 minutes less per night than white women, who were found to sleep the best of anyone in the study.

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Mr. Stewart, the Brooklyn resident, said he did see discrimination as playing a role in his sleep problems.

“As a black person in America, even if you succeed in terms of education, you still have to deal with the inherent inequality of society,” said Mr. Stewart, an administrator for a program that exposes students in racial minorities to careers in science and math. “I don’t blame it on the majority—that’s just simplistic. But in general it’s not a fair thing, and you stress because of that.”

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It may also be the culture. Black and Hispanic children in America are far less likely to have regularly enforced bedtimes than white children, according to a 2010 study conducted by Dr. Hale for the National Institutes of Health. White children were also more likely to have “language-based” bedtime routines—those that involve reading or storytelling—both of which are associated with a wide range of cognitive and behavioral advantages.

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And some researchers aren’t ready to discount biology. In a forthcoming study, Dr. Grandner found that short sleepers are more likely to have elevated levels of C-reactive protein, but how much depended on race. C-reactive protein is produced by the body when inflammation is present and has previously been implicated in sleep problems.

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