Current starting times for school and work should change to better fit with the human body's natural clock, a sleep expert says.

At the British Science Festival on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Paul Kelly, from the University of Oxford's Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, called for ending the early starting time at schools, citing that young people in Britain lose about 10 hours of sleep per week.

Kelly said that schools should start as late as 11 a.m. to combat the sleep deprivation crisis among young people, noting that children between eight and 10 years old should start school not earlier than 8:30 a.m. On the other hand, 16-year-olds should start at 10 a.m. and 18-year-olds at 11 a.m.

"At the age of 10 you get up and go to school and it fits in with our nine-to-five lifestyle," Kelley said. "When you are about 55 you also settle into the same pattern. But in between it changes a huge amount and, depending on your age, you really need to be starting around three hours later, which is entirely natural."

Kelly's recommendation is based on the understanding of the circadian rhythm, or the internal body clock, which determines the best levels of wakefulness, concentration and work ability.

The sleep expert said that ignoring the body's natural circadian rhythm could result in frustration, weight problems, anxiety and hypertension, and could also increase a person's risks for alcohol or stimulant use and risk taking.

Kelly offered some evidence that a later school day could improve student learning and performance. A study conducted at a high school in North Tyneside in the UK showed that the number of pupils who got good GCSE results increased from 34 percent to 50 percent when school start times were moved to 10:00 a.m. from 8:50 a.m.

It also appears that workers should start work later in the day. Kelly noted that making people below 55 years old work before 9 a.m. is similar to torture and that forcing workers to work between nine-to-five leaves them exhausted and stressed because of sleep deprivation. He said that working early poses a threat to performance until the age of 55, when people begin to require less sleep.

"This is a huge society issue. Staff should start at 10 a.m. You don't get back to [the 9 a.m.] starting point until [age] 55," Kelly said. "'Staff are usually sleep deprived. We've got a sleep-deprived society. It is hugely damaging on the body's systems because you are affecting physical emotional and performance systems in the body."

Photo: Loren Kerns | Flickr

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