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You don’t hear a lot of guys these days bragging about how much they sleep. Your typical male looks at sleep and sees an unproductive waste of time, an indulgence of the newborn, the retired, and the slothful.

Sleep experts, on the other hand, see it as a restorative daily health tonic, an ally of the alert, the ambitious, and the long-lived.

In fact, researchers suspect and are investigating a direct link between sleep deprivation and disease. There’s already at least one study supporting the widespread suspicion among sleep specialists that people who don’t sleep very long don’t live very long. Several researchers have connected insufficient sleep with less-efficient immune system functioning, possibly via a reduction in the activity of NK cells-the “natural killers” that go after invading viruses.

Disorders and disdains

A serious sleep disorder such as sleep apnea can quadruple the risk of heart attacks and triple the risk of stroke, even in otherwise healthy men.

But the troublemaking tendencies of inadequate sleep more often come down to basic military strategy. In your war on disease, like any other war, rested troops fight best.

Take stress, for example. While it’s still not proved that inadequate sleep causes stress, it certainly sabotages your ability to handle your daily dose of it. “If you’re poorly rested, you’re likely to find stressful situations to be even more so. And the relationship between stress and health is fairly clear,” says sleep researcher Michael Vitiello, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Stress isn’t the only one of life’s little challenges your sleep-swindled brain has a problem with. Your reaction skills also take a hit when you cheat your sleep.

“Relatively small amounts of sleep deprivation will quickly affect your alertness and psychomotor performance,” says Michael Bonnet, Ph.D., professor of neurology at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, and director of the Sleep Laboratory at the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “You become less responsive, especially in a sedentary situation, such as driving.”

Small wonder, then, that sleepiness is second only to drunkenness as a cause of fatal single-car accidents. All things considered, getting yourself killed in a car crash is not a recommended strategy for avoiding disease.

So why do so many guys shirk their sleep duties? Some suffer from one of the more than 80 disorders dogging our sleep. The most well-known is insomnia-difficulty in getting to sleep or staying there-which haunts women more than men. The most serious, though, is sleep apnea. And it can be a killer. Its top targets are men between ages 30 and 60, especially if they’re overweight. One study found that 24 percent of healthy middle-age men had sleep apnea.

With sleep apnea, you literally (and repeatedly) stop breathing when you are asleep. It’s actually your body’s rescue plan to keep arousing you so that you can breathe again. But the constant waking, even though it’s so brief that you won’t even remember, deprives you of the sleep you need. Your sleeping hours are virtually worthless; hence, your waking life is virtually nonfunctional. “And that’s life-threatening,” says Michael Stevenson, Ph.D., a psychologist and sleep specialist at the North Valley Sleep Disorders Center in Mission Hills, California. “It can get bad enough to increase your blood pressure and your risk for stroke and heart attack, not to mention automobile accidents and injuries on the job.”

So if you snore (harmless in itself, but also a possible clue to apnea) and you find yourself constantly waking up sleepy and staying that way all day, pay attention. See a sleep specialist, says Dr. Stevenson. Sleep apnea is treatable.

Serious as apnea can be, the most common reason that men don’t sleep enough is … well that they just don’t sleep enough. Ask almost any man and he’ll tell you that he functions just fine on limited Zzzs, thank you. But there’s a difference between functioning well and just functioning, according to Dr. Vitiello. “I’d never argue with someone who says he can get by on four or five hours sleep,” he says. “But his very choice of words condemns him. He’s getting by.”


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