Sleep Gap Increases Premature Death Risk in Low Income Communities

By Shani Saxon Aug 09, 2021

The news is constantly filled with new stats and studies, but some key findings should not be slept on.  Research shows that, on average, low-income people are less likely to live healthy lifestyles – including the consumption of too many processed foods and climate injustice – which results in life expectancies that are much lower than those of wealthy people, The Washington Post reports. Low-wage earners are in fact three times as likely to die prematurely as the rich, and sleep patterns could be a big part of the blame. This can take a major toll on their physical and mental health, according to The Post. 

Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the Rand Corp., and co-writer of an analysis of socioeconomic disparities in sleep and health in the 2020  Annual Review of Public Health, spoke to The Post about her group’s findings. “We used to think that sleep problems were limited to Type A professionals, and they certainly aren’t immune, but low-income individuals and racial minorities are actually at greatest risk,” she said. 

Reports The Post:

Inadequate sleep among low-income adults and racial minorities is seen as contributing to higher rates of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and dementia, both of which are more common among these groups, Troxel and her co-authors say. One study they cite attributes more than half of the  differences in health outcomes between White people and Black people, for example, to differences in quantity or quality of sleep. You might think of this as the great sleep divide. 

Troxel said that it’s common for people to incorrectly assume that “poor sleep is a symptom rather than a cause of other medical or mental troubles. The truth, however, is that poor sleep can directly cause illness. 

Researches over the years have been ringing the alarm about the connection between poor sleep habits and race and poverty. 

According to The Post:

In 2013, for instance, a large survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 35.2 percent of people earning below the poverty level reported sleeping less than six hours in an average 24-hour period, compared with 27.7 percent of those earning more than four times the poverty level. 
rnThe disparities are even sharper among racial groups. A rigorous 2015 study involving both lab tests and self-reports from more than 2,000 U.S. participants found that, compared with White people matched for age and sex, Black people were five times as likely to sleep for shorter periods. Hispanics and Chinese Americans were roughly two times as likely to get fewer hours of sleep than White Americans.

Whatever the cause, poor sleep habits tend to make people less healthy, which in turn could further trouble their sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. 

The goal for researchers like Troxel is to now focus on finding strategies for modifying sleep health for those suffering the most. “We need to think of population-level interventions,” Troxel said, “including policies to ensure that healthy sleep is not merely a luxury for those who can afford it.”