Both adults and children are struggling to cope with "an epidemic" of sleep disorders, an international group of doctors said Friday.

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Recent research indicates 35 per cent of Canadian youth aged 12 to 17 and 61 per cent of adults get fewer than eight hours of sleep a night. ((Canadian Press))

Sleep problems — including insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and sleep deprivation in general — affect up to 45 per cent of the world’s population, the World Association of Sleep Medicine said in a report released to mark the organization's 2011 World Sleep Day.

A majority of Canadians are among the sleep-deprived, the report said.

It said 60 per cent of Canadian adults feel tired most of the time and get, on average, 6.9 hours of sleep a night, although experts recommend eight hours. Canadian research indicates 30 per cent of adults get fewer than six hours a night.

'Too often, not getting enough sleep is seen as badge of honour in our society.'— Dr. Charles Samuels of the Canadian Sleep Society

Men sleep less on average about 11 minutes less than women a night, but women have a higher rate of trouble falling asleep and staying asleep — 35 per cent compared with 25 per cent for men.

The association also said people who commute an hour or more a day sleep less than those who have a commute of 30 minutes or less.

In its report, the group said sleepiness and sleeplessness are threatening health and quality of life in countries around the globe, adding that it can be dangerous to health and safety to cut back on the recommended hours spent sleeping. For example:

  • A person who has not slept for 20 hours has a level of impairment equal to someone with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 per cent, over the limit of 0.05, at which a driver is considered legally impaired in Ontario.
  • A non-typical sleep schedule from shift work disturbs the body’s natural pattern of rest and rejuvenation, which can lead to physical and mental problems, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, asthma, diabetes and depression.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other medical conditions. The amount of sleep and the quality of sleep have been shown to affect appetite, weight control and the effectiveness of diets for weight loss.
  • An extra hour of sleep a night appears to decrease the risk of coronary heart calcification, or hardening of the arteries, an early indicator of cardiovascular disease.

"Not only are adults struggling to cope with an epidemic of sleep disorders, but doctors are also observing alarming rates of sleepiness and sleeplessness in children," said Dr. Reut Gruber of Montreal's Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

Poor sleep affects about 25 per cent of the world’s children, according to the sleep medicine group.

"As many as 40 per cent of [Canadian] children aren't getting enough sleep, which is not only impairing their ability to function properly, it's hurting their ability to learn," Gruber said.

Doctors suggest teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night. Children in elementary school should be getting 10 to 12 hours.

"Too often, not getting enough sleep is seen as badge of honour in our society," said Dr. Charles Samuels of the Canadian Sleep Society. "Some highly successful people boast of only needing a few hours sleep every night, or not having time in their busy lives to sleep properly.

"But the reality is you need adequate sleep to function properly, to be able to drive safely and just and be healthy. There is nothing noble about not getting enough sleep."