The city that never sleeps tries to figure out why

Insomnia plagues tens of millions of adults -- 30 to 40 percent say they suffer some of its symptoms each year, and 10 to 15 percent say they have chronic insomnia. Therapies range from medication to lifestyle changes to that cup of tea you had before bed last night.

(BigStock photo)

Now, in an experiment that bears watching for both its public health and media implications, a New York City radio station has asked its listeners what literally keeps them up at night, and is offering to help.

More than 4,600 people answered questions posed by public radio station WNYC's "Clock Your Sleep" program, revealing, for example that more than half keep their smartphones by their beds at night, a plurality consumes more than one cup of coffee in the morning, and more than half remember their dreams. (Disclosure: The head of WNYC's newsgathering operation is a friend and former colleague of mine.)

The results of the four-week test also showed that people who share a bed go to sleep and wake up 45 minutes earlier than those who sleep alone or with a pet, and that women slept a few minutes more than men each night (7 hours, 14 minutes and 12 seconds in week four). Women also steadily added to their sleep time over the four weeks, while men slept less in weeks two and three before recovering in week four. (Remember, this isn't a random sample; listeners self-selected and signed up).

John Keefe, senior editor on WNYC's data news team, said the station was pleased to find that as participants tracked their sleep over four weeks, they averaged a few more minutes of shuteye apiece. This correlates with lots of research that keeping a journal is a useful tool in changing behavior, whether the focus is exercise, diet or sleep. They also saw the effect of spring break, a week when participants slept later, and weekends, when the journals showed people catching up on sleep. On average, each person logged 10 days of reports during the 28-day test.

Such sleep diaries aren't novel. Physicians use them in treating insomnia. In 2012, Consumer Reports asked 8,900 people who sleep well about their habits and determined that they are more likely to exercise during the day, go to bed and wake up at set times, unwind for 30 minutes before going to bed, and have sex before going to sleep.

WNYC is taking the initiative a step further by inviting participants to join one of three teams -- each headed by a well-known personality from the station -- to make changes that encourage more sleep. One will shut down televisions, iPads and phones an hour before bedtime and keep the screens outside the bedroom. Another plans to exercise during the day and consume no caffeine, alcohol or nicotine within four hours of bedtime. The third will go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Again, there is good research that shows that attempting to change deeply ingrained habits is a little easier when it's done with other folks.

When I asked Keefe whether the project has boosted ratings or had any other benefit for the station, he said he hopes it will help cement a long-term relationship with listeners, who may be more inclined to donate if they enjoyed participating in or hearing about the effort.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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