Student & Faculty Research

Wake Up, America!

An Elmhurst psychology professor examines Americans’ sleep habits.

A man’s teeth tumble out of his wide-open mouth. A woman discovers she’s naked in public. The grim reaper looms.

For the students and alumni assembled in Schaible Science Center, these strange images prompt eager nods of recognition. They are the content of common nightmares. Professor of Psychology Kathleen Sexton-Radek describes them in engrossing detail—and tells her audience some news that, while less bizarre, may be just as scary. Her listeners probably are not getting enough of the stuff that these (and more pleasant) dreams are made of: sleep.

“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” is the title of the professor’s popular annual talk at the Faculty Speaker Series, sponsored by the Alumni Association. About 70 million Americans have a significant sleep problem, she notes, and about 40 million have a full-blown sleep disorder. The pace of a 24-7 society, with its competing demands of work and family, is keeping us awake; and our lack of sleep is affecting our lives in a variety of negative ways. Learning is more difficult, work is less productive, driving is more dangerous, and our bodies are less healthy.

“We’re becoming sleep deprived as a nation,” Sexton-Radek says. “We’ve lost about an hour and a half of a night’s sleep in the last 10 years.” The professor adds that sleep is as essential to health as are diet and exercise. “People will feel much better with good sleep habits.”

Last August, Sexton-Radek began a year’s sabbatical at the Sleep Disorder Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center—“the Mecca of sleep research,” she calls it. As a clinical psychologist with 18 years of sleep science experience, she was in heaven. Three days a week, she worked alongside some of the world’s preeminent sleep researchers, attending presentations, making the rounds, and reviewing the cases of patients with sleep disorders—apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia, and the rest.

With another psychologist, Sexton-Radek taught an eight-week class at Rush designed for a group in which she has a particular interest, the elderly. She believes that the findings of sleep science have not been applied effectively to the older population, where it can have a big impact. Contrary to popular belief, people don’t need less sleep as they age, she notes. But sleep does become more fragmented; the elderly sleep less deeply and wake more frequently during the night. Also, because they often lack a set daily routine, older people may nap too often or go to sleep too early, and then have trouble sleeping. What they should do, she says, is create a regular schedule by setting a consistent wake-up time. “It’s a way to retrain the brain.”

Sexton-Radek is interested in age-related sleep patterns at both ends of the life cycle. For her younger research subjects, she looks no further than the Elmhurst campus. A graduate of Augustana College, Sexton-Radek arrived at Elmhurst in 1988 after earning her doctorate at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Over the next 15 years, she conducted a series of studies of young-adult sleep—some in her lab in Schaible, others in one of the five residence halls.

“At first, when we entered a residence hall at night, I was afraid of bothering the students,” she recalls. “But no, it was like State and Madison in there, with all the lights on and lots of activity. They were visiting, playing music, doing homework, and chatting on the Internet. We did two overnight sleep research studies in the residence halls, hooking students up from head to toe with sensors, measuring heart rate, skin temperature, and muscle tone.” She found a lot of willing subjects. “The students all said, ‘Do me next.’”

Sexton-Radek says that students are tired sleepers: when they finally make it to bed, they fall asleep right away. They also have variable sleep patterns. “All the social cues students face result in poor and variable sleep. Their sleep is like Morse code—long one night, short the next. College students are scattered and pushed around by jobs, schoolwork, relationships. The credo of the college student is, ‘I sleep when I can.’”

Next, the professor would like to conduct an even more rigorous sleep-research study on campus. This one will use actigraphs, small devices worn like wristwatches that measure waking and sleeping states. Sexton-Radek also would like to develop workshops that will enable college students to better manage their sleep. “It would be like a study skills class: preparing for your sleep,” she says.

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