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Disturbed sleep is among the most frequent health complaints that physicians encounter. More than one-half of adults in the United States experience at least intermittent sleep disturbance, and only 30% of adult Americans report consistently obtaining a sufficient amount of sleep. The Institute of Medicine has estimated that 50–70 million Americans suffer from a chronic disorder of sleep and wakefulness, which can adversely affect daytime functioning as well as physical and mental health. Over the last 20 years, the field of sleep medicine has emerged as a distinct specialty in response to the impact of sleep disorders and sleep deficiency on overall health.


Given the opportunity, most healthy young adults will sleep 7–8 h per night, although the timing, duration, and internal structure of sleep vary among individuals. In the United States, adults tend to have one consolidated sleep episode each night, although in some cultures sleep may be divided into a mid-afternoon nap and a shortened night sleep. This pattern changes considerably over the life span, as infants and young children sleep considerably more than older people.

The stages of human sleep are defined on the basis of characteristic patterns in the electroencephalogram (EEG), the electrooculogram (EOG—a measure of eye-movement activity), and the surface electromyogram (EMG) measured on the chin, neck, and legs. The continuous recording of these electrophysiologic parameters to define sleep and wakefulness is termed polysomnography.

Polysomnographic profiles define two basic states of sleep: (1) rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and (2) non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. NREM sleep is further subdivided into three stages: N1, N2, and N3, characterized by increasing arousal threshold and slowing of the cortical EEG. REM sleep is characterized by a low-amplitude, mixed-frequency EEG similar to that of NREM stage N1 sleep. The EOG shows bursts of rapid eye movements similar to those seen during eyes-open wakefulness. EMG activity is absent in nearly all skeletal muscles, reflecting the brainstem-mediated muscle atonia that is characteristic of REM sleep.


Normal nocturnal sleep in adults displays a consistent organization from night to night (Fig. 24-1). After sleep onset, sleep usually progresses through NREM stages N1–N3 sleep within 45–60 min. NREM stage N3 sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) predominates in the first third of the night and comprises 15–25% of total nocturnal sleep time in young adults. Sleep deprivation increases the rapidity of sleep onset and both the intensity and amount of slow-wave sleep.


Wake-sleep architecture. Alternating stages of wakefulness, the three stages of NREM sleep (N1–N3), and REM sleep (solid bars) occur over the course of the night for representative young and older adult men. Characteristic features of sleep in older people include reduction of N3 slow-wave sleep, frequent spontaneous awakenings, early sleep onset, ...

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