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Sleep deprivation is cause of serious problems for teens

(WAVE/FOX19) - Whether it's getting them into bed, or getting them out of bed, parents know teens and sleep are in a constant tug of war. What parents and many others dealing with sleep-deprived teens may not realize is there's actual science behind this on-going teen sleep saga. It's why some schools are making big changes to give teens some extra zzz's.

Ask any teen and the timing is about the same.

"I usually go to bed at 12 in the morning," said 16-year-old Molly. "And I only get like 5 hours to 6 hours of sleep."

But don't blame homework, sports, jobs or even socializing. It's biology that's actually to blame, keeping the teenage bodies abuzz beyond the typical school-night bed hour.

University of Louisville Pediatric Sleep Psychiatrist Sarah Honaker says it's research that's over a decade old that finds "changes that occur in melatonin production, in core body temperature, clearly show that biologically teens fall asleep later, feel sleepy later."

On average, 90 minutes to 2 hours later than adults.

"An adolescent should feel sleepy around 11, 11:30 even 12," Honaker said.

And when it's factored in that teens need 9-1/4 hours of sleep a night, "we're talking about more than a 2-hour deprivation on a nightly basis."

That's why UK's Fred Danner with the Department of Educational Psychology led the push to delay high school start times an hour in Fayette County.

"It's related to health, to growth, to accidents, to learning, to memory, to depression" Danner said, and he cites research to back up all those claims.

Minnesota was the first school system to delay start times and then study the impact in 1996, closely following the health of teens.

In that research, Honaker explains, "they found fewer visits to the school nurse and fewer days missed because of illness.

Danner says learning is another research-backed improvement when teens get an appropriate amount of sleep, and according to studies on teen sleep "the longer sleepers tended to have A's and B's, the short sleepers did not."

As the sleepy teen research builds, more school systems are slowly making a change to later high school start times. Jessamine County in central Kentucky was one of the first to make the switch a decade ago. Superintendent Lu Young says the research was a wake-up call for their school system and while "we know anecdotally that our high schoolers perform better today than they did 10 years ago, "she says there's no doubt, more sleep is a factor.

Before moving to administration, Young was a high school teacher and remembers how sleepy the students came to school.

"Sleeping through the first period certainly wasn't the best approach to improved academics," Young said.

And that brings up the research on accidents.

"I was seeing kids walk in that needed a jolt of Mountain Dew to get them going and all I could think of was how did you get from home to here," Young said.

Danner actually tracked teen vehicle crashes in Fayette County after implementing the hour delay.

"The crash rates in Fayette County dropped 16 percent and they went up 8 percent in the state," Danner said. "Pretty large effect for such a modest change."

It's one "modest" hour possibly making a lifetime of difference.

As Molly prepares to get her drivers license, she knows she won't be getting any additional sleep.

"During the day I am like half asleep, half awake and it makes me lose focus a lot during class," Molly said. "I thought there was something wrong with me. I went to the doctor one day and I talked to him about it and he says: 'It's a teenager thing.'"

Both Danner and Honaker argue teen sleep deprivation doesn't have to be a 'teenager thing'. Danner says the school start times are fixable, but he also says in every district where it's discussed it's met with fierce debate.

Concerns including everything from a later start time to after school sports practice, to transportation and after school jobs, even childcare. Oldham County is one local system with a later start time at 8:30 and leaders there say more sleep for teens is worth making it work.

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