Symposium explores the role of sleep in health and well-being

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Decades of research point to the crucial role that sleep plays in human health and well-being. Despite its importance, recent studies suggest many adults and children sleep fewer than the recommended hours.

To promote new research directions on this important issue, Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the Population Research Institute hosted the symposium, "Sleep across the Lifespan: Family Influences and Impact", held recently at the Nittany Lion Inn on Penn State’s University Park campus.

According to Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute and symposium co-organizer, the symposium’s goal was to bring together family scholars from a wide range of disciplines with scholars who are renowned for their research on sleep and its health impacts. “Sleep quality, quantity, and timing can have major implications affecting brain function and emotional and mental health,” McHale explained. “Sleep disruptions can also exacerbate health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”

Douglas Teti, professor of human development and family studies and pediatrics at Penn State, discussed infant sleep and how it can be influenced by families. “Going to sleep requires letting go; individuals must feel safe and secure in their sleeping environments,” he said. “In our research on families with infants, we found that babies who woke more often at night often had parents who were depressed or had poor parenting skills at bedtime.”

Mona El-Sheikh, the Leonard Peterson & Co., Inc. Professor in the department of human development and family studies at Auburn University, said another age group that typically experiences sleep-wake problems is adolescents. “A large percentage of youth have sleep problems, which can lead to a number of other health and adjustment problems,” El-Sheikh explained. “For example, we’ve found that body mass index (BMI) is higher for kids who sleep less. We’ve also discovered when sleep deprived, teenagers engage in more risk-taking behavior.”

Lauren Hale, associate professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, reiterated the importance of sleep for this age group, noting that up to 90 percent of teenagers in the U.S. do not get the sleep they need. “Sleep is a mechanism through which health disparities emerge and persist, and studies have shown that low socio-economic status youth often experience shorter sleep duration and poorer sleep quality — with the most disadvantaged getting the least amount of sleep,” she said.

The symposium also featured research on sleep in couple relationships. Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation, and her colleagues studied married and cohabitating couples. Among the findings she reported was that more sleep was related to better relationship quality the next morning. Troxel also found that sleeping with a loved one outweighed disruptions to sleep. “Psychologically, couples said they felt like they slept better even when objective monitoring revealed that their sleep was more disrupted when they slept together,” she said.

David Maume, professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, focused on the gendered nature of sleep. “We’ve found that family issues most commonly impact women’s sleep, whereas work issues affect men’s sleep. Studying societies around the world, our work shows that gender equality is linked to greater couple happiness and lower distress — as well as better sleep.”

Sleep problems become more frequent as individuals age, probably because of the links between sleep and both physical health and the quality of social relationships. Diane Lauderdale, professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Chicago, explained that as the social circles of older adults become smaller, spouses play a larger role as sources of support. “We discovered that older adults who were no longer married due to loss of a spouse had more sleep problems than those with a spouse.”

The symposium also addressed the evolution and cultural contexts of sleep. Carol Worthman, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in Anthropology at Emery University, described cultural beliefs about sleep and how these beliefs have evolved over time and vary across societies, including when, where, and with whom people sleep. “Culture is an inherit part of how humans work. It affects everything we do, including sleep,” she explained.

The ways in which family researchers could move the study of sleep forward was discussed by Susan Redline, the Peter C. Farrell Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It’s time to reunite sleep with context, including cultural, psychosocial and material conditions. It’s also time to figure out how to take the data we have and enhance our interventions to impact sleep and health across the lifespan.”

The two-day meeting ended with a workshop led by Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State and symposium co-organizer. The workshop addressed how to incorporate sleep into interdisciplinary research on families. “As we’ve seen, sleep problems can affect individuals’ quality of life as well as the well-being of other family members, making families an important focus of study” he explained.  “There are a range of ways to study sleep, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, and it is important that newcomers to the field of sleep research understand why a particular method may be optimal for addressing their research questions.”

This year’s symposium was dedicated to Avi Sadeh, a scheduled presenter at the symposium who passed away unexpectedly two months ago. Sadeh was the director of the Laboratory for Children's Sleep and Arousal Disorders and chairman of the clinical child psychology graduate program, both at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and a pioneer in the field of pediatric sleep. Several symposium presenters paid tribute to Sadeh, highlighting many of his many professional accomplishments and noting he was a kind, caring colleague who was dedicated to his family. 

The Family Symposium series is funded in part by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Other sponsors include Penn State’s Population Research and Social Science Research Institutes, Child Study Center, Prevention Research Center; and the Penn State Departments of Anthropology, Biobehavioral Health, Human Development and Family Studies, Psychology, Sociology, and Criminology.

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Last Updated December 12, 2016