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CDC: Early School Start Times Are Putting Teens’ Health At Risk

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Students’ health, safety and academic performance are at risk due to the early start time of schools around the country, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The nationwide survey, which was published in the Aug. 7 issue of the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that five out of every six middle schools and high schools in the U.S. start classes earlier than 8:30 a.m., making it difficult for teens to get the sleep they need to be healthy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start later than 8:30 a.m. to help teens avoid becoming chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted. Adolescents need between 8.5 hours and 9.5 hours of sleep each night, but their natural sleep rhythms make it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., according to the academy.

School Start Time_SLeep3Research has shown that teens and adolescents who get too little sleep are more likely to be overweight or depressed, and they are more likely to perform poorly in school and to experiment with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

The CDC, in its new report, calls insufficient sleep among the nation’s teenagers a “substantial public health concern,” and says that while parents can help by teaching their children good sleep hygiene (no cell phones in the bedroom, for example), it is important for schools to do their part by ensuring that class doesn’t start too early.

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health and co-author of the agency’s new report, said in a statement. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

Researchers reviewed start-times for the 2011-2012 school year at a sample of the nation’s nearly 40,000 middle schools and high schools. Their findings illuminate the fact that many young people begin their days far too early to allow time for a full night of sleep.

The average start time nationwide was 8:03 a.m., but there were wide variations across the country:

  • The state with the latest average start time was Alaska, at 8:33 a.m. The earliest was Louisiana at 7:40 a.m. (Louisiana also had the highest proportion of schools starting before 7:30 a.m., at 30 percent.)
  • No schools in Hawaii, Mississippi, and Wyoming started at 8:30 a.m. or later, while more than three-quarters of schools in Alaska and North Dakota started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
  • In 42 states, more than three-quarters of schools started before 8:30 a.m.

Given that up to nine in ten teens are not getting enough sleep, the researchers say that delaying school start times could be a major step towards boosting sleep health among the nation’s young people.

“Among the possible public health interventions for increasing sufficient sleep among adolescents, delaying school start times has the potential for the greatest population impact by changing the environmental context for students in entire school districts,” the researchers wrote.

Other steps that can improve sleep in teens include setting regular bedtimes and waking times (even on weekends), and removing technologies, such as computers, video games and mobile phones, from teens’ bedrooms

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