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Sleep on this

Americans do not place a high priority on sleep, but there's growing evidence that they should. This is particularly true of teenagers, whose lack of sleep is literally altering the development of their brains, affecting their academic performance and rendering them drowsy drivers who may be every bit as hazardous as drunken drivers.

But many teens feel they must wring out as much from each day as they can. There's school, homework, extracurricular activities, church activities, social lives and, for some part-time jobs all to squeeze into a 24-hour day. If a student is particularly motivated to attend a top college, he or she has to make trade-offs, cramming for tomorrow's physics test instead of hitting the hay early, rationalizing that there will be plenty of time someday for sleep.

The flaw in that logic is that adults are no better than youths in getting the recommended amount of sleep. And there's no making up for lost sleep.

Young brains need sleep to fully develop. This process continues until age 21. Developing brains also need sleep to absorb and process the learning of the day.

The benefits of even a little more sleep, even 15 minutes more a night, are astonishing, according to a recent New York Magazine article. A University of Minnesota researcher who surveyed more than 7,000 high school students found that A students averaged about 15 minutes more sleep per night than B students. B students had about 11 more minutes of sleep than C students, who had about 10 more minutes than D students.

According to the magazine, one Minnesota high school that pushed back its start time by one hour experienced sharply higher scores on SAT exams. The top 10 percent of the class had SAT scores that averaged 1,500, compared to 1,288 the previous year. In Lexington, Ky., a later start time resulted in a 16 percent drop in teenage car accidents. Elsewhere in the state, the accident rate increased 9 percent, the magazine reported.

There is certain logic to working with Mother Nature rather than against it. However, Mother Nature doesn't have to make the school bus system run efficiently or negotiate with faculty members, coaches and activity sponsors, who may not want to work well into the evening to ensure Tommy and Teresa teenager get one more hour of sleep.

But considering the growing body of evidence that young brains need more sleep for developmental reasons and to help ensure that teens are safer drivers, it would be worthwhile for families and school communities to discuss whether schedules, habits and expectations could be altered to maximize teens' learning and safety. At a minimum, it's something to sleep on.