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Chronic insomnia seems to be a badge of honor among students—so much so that their status among peers is determined in part by the amount of sleep lost in studying for an exam or hacking out a paper. Though I had no hard data to support my belief, I had always assumed that insomnia was something of a hallmark of education and attainment—those with higher academic credentials or better-paying jobs would be more prone to sleep deprivation due to the pressure of their life situations.

I was surprised, then, to uncover convincing research that not only disproves my assumption, but suggests that the opposite is true: insomnia is directly related to lower educational attainment. This fact is revealed in the work of a team of researchers at the University of Memphis and published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Their conclusion is that “[…] individuals of lower individual and household education were significantly more likely to experience insomnia […]” (“Socioeconomic Status and Insomnia” 111)

Building on research conducted in 1992 by Winkleby and others, the University of Memphis researchers accepted Winkleby’s view that education is the strongest single factor influencing socioeconomic status (SES). In summarizing the Winkleby study, Judith Stewart of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation stated:

Using data on 2380 participants from a five city project, Winkleby, Jatulis, Frank & Fortmann (1992) examined the independent contribution of education, income, and occupation to a set of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including cigarette smoking, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and total and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Their results showed that the relationship between SES measures and risk factors was strongest and most consistent for education. Higher risk was associated with lower levels of education. (Stewart 1)

In seeking an explanation of just how a lack of educational attainment might exacerbate individuals’ difficulties sleeping, the University of Memphis researchers were less conclusive. While they suggested that an individual’s educational level “influences insomnia by guiding lifestyle behaviors associated with sleep,” (“Socioeconomic Status and Insomnia” 116), they were reluctant to define just what those behaviors might be, suggesting, instead, that “A study focusing exclusively on less educated individuals with insomnia may produce greater clarity in identifying explanatory variables.” (“Socioeconomic Status and Insomnia” 116)

In considering the impact of this new research, it appears to me that most marketing of both prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications is targeted toward busy professionals with high-stress, white-collar jobs, whereas the socioeconomic group most in need of those medications would be blue-collar wage-earners. Those dispensing health care to persons of lower SES would do well to look for problems associated with sleep loss, including irritability, loss of mental clarity, on-the-job injuries, problems with appetite and digestion, as well as sexual dysfunction. Without further research it is impossible to say just what variables cause these less-educated individuals to suffer a disproportionate incidence of insomnia. I’m just pleased to learn that I’ll sleep better when I’ve completed my degree!

Works Cited

Gellis, Les A. “Socioeconomic Status and Insomnia.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology Vol. 114,          No. 1 (2005): 111-118

Stewart, Judith. “Educational Status” John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on             Socioeconomic Status and Health. August, 2001     <http://www.macses.ucsf.edu/Research/Social%20Environment/notebook/education.html>

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