People who get by on too little sleep are just as bad as smokers, and can function as poorly as drunks says a leading neuroscientist.
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.”
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.