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A Snoozing VP and Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers: Are We Sleep Deprived?

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- On the same day that Vice President Joe Biden nodded off during President Obama's debt reduction speech, a snoozing Nevada air traffic controller forced an air ambulance pilot with an emergency patient aboard to land without the controller's guidance -- the fourth in a series of similar episodes that have grown so acute that even President Obama felt pressed to respond.

"The individuals who are falling asleep on the job, that's unacceptable," Obama told ABC News exclusive interview Friday.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it would double-staff overnight shifts at 27 airports where controllers were working -- and apparently sleeping -- solo. The chief of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization has resigned, and the catnapping controllers -- including at least one who'd been on a fourth straight overnight shift -- have been suspended.

These recent involuntary siestas among holders of high-profile and high-stakes jobs suggest the nation might have a problem: At least a third of the U.S. population is sleep deprived, said Dr. David M. Rapoport, director of the New York University Sleep Disorders Center.

As a society, we remain largely in denial about the biological need for sleep, believing we're "supermen and superwomen, and that we can cheat on sleep and there's no price," Rapoport said.

But history has repeatedly proved us wrong.

The consequences of cutting sleep can be devastating. Expert reviews of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger space shuttle disaster have suggested that fatigue, possibly from sleep deprivation, were contributing circumstances. In those three events, people "were sleep-deprived and made the wrong decision," Rapoport said.

It's not that sleeping on the job is new. Throughout history, people have drifted off at inopportune times. But only since still cameras and video cameras became omnipresent recorders of private moments in public lives have we captured lapses of alertness that might have previously passed unnoticed.

Biden's lid-lowering turn during Obama's speech at George Washington University Wednesday afternoon wasn't the first instance of an Obama administration official getting caught catching zzzs. On Feb. 24, 2009, Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, fell asleep sitting a few feet from Obama at a White House meeting.

Rapoport said 80 percent of people who claim not to need much sleep "really require eight hours of sleep -- they either snatch it in other ways or they power through it." The inventor Thomas Edison claimed to sleep only three or four hours a night but napped frequently. Sleep needs may be genetically preprogrammed, but in the meantime "you have to play with what you're dealt."

Rapoport offers the following recommendations:

Know how much sleep you need. "The right amount is the amount that makes you feel good," he said.

Recognize the warning signs of sleep impairment. By the time you notice you've nodded off while driving "you've already done it between five and seven times," said Rapoport. "You've already escaped some pretty awful things." If you're impaired, "either don't drive that day, or think about what it is in your lifestyle that you can change."

Try to establish a regular routine.

Become aware of the warning signs of sleep-disrupting disorders. "The most common marker of those disorders is that you sleep what seems like a reasonable amount of time, and yet you're still sleepy," said Rapoport. Doctors only recently have begun recognizing the impact of sleep apnea, now thought to affect about 20 percent of the population, with similar consequences to sleep deprivation.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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