People who boast about getting by on less than five hours sleep should be shunned like smokers, because of the harm which can be caused by short sleeping, a leading professor has said.
Prof Russell Foster, a neuroscientist from the University of Oxford, said lack of sleep is damaging the health of the nation, with too many early risers trying to function with brain skills so damaged they could be drunk.
The comments follow studies which suggest that working night shifts speeds up the ageing process, and is linked to increasing risks of cancer, heart disease and type two diabetes.
Prof Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, called for a change in attitudes towards getting an early night.
“There certainly is a culture of, well I only had five hours of sleep last night how fantastic am I?” he said. “In fact, we should be looking down on those sort of things – in the same way that we frown upon smoking I think we should start to frown upon not taking our sleep seriously.”
The neuroscientist raised concern that sleep deprivation could cause risks not just in jobs such as healthcare and transport, where dangers were obvious, but also could damage the quality of crucial decisions.
“We see this too much with really senior people,” he said. “Lack of sleep damages a whole host of skills – empathy, processing information, ability to handle people, but right at the top of the chain you get overly impulsive, impaired thinking, because of this problem.”
“Look at banking, look at the recent decisions about the Greek crisis,” he said. “We see major discussions going through the night which have a massive impact, and decisions are being made when skills are very impaired.
He said many of those who rise before dawn were unaware of just how badly it could affect the functioning of their brain.
“At four o clock in the morning our ability to process information is similar to the amount of alcohol that would make us legally drunk – as bad as if we had a few whiskies or beers,” he said.
Prof Foster said the evidence about the increased health risks posed by nightshifts was compelling.
“The assumption has always been that you adapt to the nightshift that the body clock will map on to the demands of working at night. The really extraordinary findings across a whole range of different studies are that you don’t adapt,” he said, citing research linking night working to a host of diseases.
But he said overall lack of rest was enough to cause lack of attention, accidental “microsleeps” – such as dropping off at the wheel – as well as reduced ability to process thoughts.
Last year French research showed the brains of workers who had done night shifts for about 10 years had aged by an extra 6 and a half years.
Those taking part in the study by the University of Toulouse, found they had lower scores for memory, processing speed and overall brain function than those working normal office hours.
Lack of sleep has been linked with factors such as disrupted metabolism and raised levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, all of which may lead to higher blood pressure and increased stroke risk.
In 2010 a major study found that people who slept for less than six hours each night were 12 per cent more likely to die prematurely – before the age of 65 – than those who slept the recommended six to eight hours a night.
The team from the University of Warwick and Federico II University Medical School in Naples analysed 16 studies involving a total of 1.3 million people.
But sleeping too much has also been linked with ill-health, and an increased risk of early death.
Studies have found that sleep makes it easier to retrieve nuggets of information that may have got lost in a corner of our brain.
In two situations where subjects forgot information over the course of 12 hours of being awake, after a night’s sleep they were about twice as likely to be able to remember it, the University of Exeter study found.
Sleep habits of those at the top
As Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher famously slept for just four hours a night during the week, though she took regular daytime naps.
When asked how many hours sleep people need, Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have replied: “Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.”
US President Barack Obama is understood to only sleep for six hours a night.
Business magnate Donald Trump boasts just three to four hours sleep nightly.
Sir Winston Churchill managed on just four hours sleep a night during World War Two – but insisted on a two hour nap in the afternoon.
Scientist Albert Einstein reportedly slept for 10 hours a night, plus daytime naps.
Bill Gates, former chief executive of Microsoft, says he needs seven hours of sleep to “stay sharp”.