Sometimes I don’t sleep for a couple of days. I have a friend who told me that I could die from lack of sleep. I can’t believe that, but this friend is always throwing around facts and he sounds pretty knowledgeable. Is it really possible to die from lack of sleep?
— No Snorer, via email
Here’s a little quiz, brought to you by the good folks at the Matthew Alice Rumba Academy and Research Emporium. What is the most common source of bad facts? Stuff just made up on the spot? No. Old wives’ tales? Nope. Urban myths? Uh-uh. Mom? Close, but no deal. “Educated” big-mouth friends? You betcha. So, if you’re on your toes (not likely, after 48 hours of sleep deprivation), you can predict our answer to your question.
A top-notch sleep researcher at UCSD has said he’s never seen a report of anyone dying solely from a lack of sleep. That’s not to say people haven’t been so debilitated by sleep deprivation that they haven’t done something stupid or risky and died as a result of their actions. One of the areas affected by sleep deprivation is the frontal lobe, responsible for good judgment and risk assessment, and studies have also shown that we’re not really aware of our impairment, so we do dumb stuff. Like drive. Sleeplessness strains the brain, and nothing we do in that state is very efficient. Or smart. Even a loss of one night’s sleep makes test subjects slower and less sharp even at simple things such as speaking and typing. Neurons misfire and we look like goofs.
When we sleep, we’re pretty unresponsive to external stimuli, but our brains are ticking away like mad. Proteins are being regenerated to help boost pooped neurons; brain connections made during our waking hours are being edited and reorganized. As a result, lack of sleep limits how much information and how many skills a person can retain. Sleep-deprived test subjects also suffered from weakened immune systems. The number of white cells decreases, and the remaining cells are less active. Lab rats kept awake for two to six weeks all died, and their deaths were a result of wrecked immune systems.
But our brains are prepared for our crazy life patterns. MRI studies have shown that overworked, sleep-deprived brain areas will occasionally shut down, a state the professionals call “microsleep.” While that area is chilling out, a backup area of the brain takes over. Of course, the backup is less efficient at the job and might be busy doing its own thing, so again our performance is poor.
For the record, the longest sleepless stretch was achieved by a high school student who managed to stay awake 11 days. He was pretty much a blubbering mess by the end of the experiment, but he didn’t suffer any permanent damage, like death, say. But there are diseases that have sleeplessness as a symptom. A man suffering from Morvan’s chorea chugged along for 27 dreamless days.
Our friends at UCSD have also looked at the question of the optimal number of sleep hours per night. They took the sleep and life histories of 1.1 million people and found that those who slept eight or more hours had an increased risk of dying within the study time. Seven hours was optimal. Even five hours rated higher than eight. But less than four hours a night again raised the risk of death. The professors had no clear explanation for why this should be true. So, No Snorer, from all the science so far, looks as if you can stay up a night or two and not keel over. But you’ll probably look like a bumbling, stuttering fool for a while, until your brain recovers.
Tell me about Tumco, the old mining town in east Imperial County. My friend says there’s a vertical shaft out there that goes straight down 2000 feet, and the place is listed somewhere as the most dangerous mining site in the West. True? We’re planning an adventure.
— Reluctant Explorer, North Park
Dang. More friend facts. An evil that must be stamped out. Anyway, about delightful Tumco... A rubble-strewn desert ghost town since 1914 or so. The best-looking features are the graveyards and the cyanide vats. Gold was discovered there about 1884, and the place boomed along under a variety of names (Gold Rock, Hedges) until all the mines finally became economically impractical early in the 20th Century. One of the last owners was the United Mines Co., ergo Tumco. At most, the population was 500 or so, but it had all the trappings of a juicy mining town, what with all the saloons, bar girls, company store, etc. They actually hauled a lot of gold out of the area for a while, and the Tumco mines were pretty famous. What the desert hasn’t demolished, vandals have, so there’s not much left but crumbling foundations and its niftiest, most adventurous feature, lots of open mine shafts. During its heyday, the mines themselves were no more dangerous than any others. Today, if you’re not sharp, you could become part of the geology. That’s about its only danger. Deepest mine shaft? About 1500 feet.