Are You Part of the “Sleepless Elite”?

What our brains do at night, how much sleep you need, and why the tech wizards who are, right now, scrambling to get up and running should really get a little shut-eye.

Sleep key

The White House has announced a “tech blitz” to take on the glitches at that have been thwarting millions of Americans attempting to sign up for health insurance. The team of computer experts from inside and outside government—the “best and the brightest,” according to administration officials—is putting the pedal to the metal to find fixes for the balky system, and that means one thing: The best and the brightest will be getting less sleep.

Sleep deprivation is common among tech workers, who may work for days on end while getting systems up and running. It’s also common among highly successful people—what the Wall Street Journal calls the “sleepless elite.” The list of famous folks who by rights should be dragging their asses includes Madonna (four hours a night), Martha Stewart (also four), Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (four to six), Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Donald Trump. Historically, the all-time-champion non-sleeper may have been electrical wizard Nicola Testa, who got by on two hours a night. President Obama himself doesn’t need much sleep.

I used to be just like that. When I was a kid, I was always the first up at our house in the morning. I got all the way through college skimping on sleep. I started slowing down when I had kids, and the slowing down hasn’t stopped since. These days, I’m always resentful when I read about some Lord of the Universe who doesn’t waste time on such a petty practice as hitting the pillow. Boasting about not needing sleep is such an unattractive way of being holier-than-thou—even worse, I think, than those people who can’t be bothered to eat.

So I was interested to read a report in the New York Times on a new study explaining why we need to sleep. Prior research has shown that sleep deprivation leads to bad decision-making (um, Mr. Trump?) and slower reaction times. What scientists didn’t understand was why. What is it that sleep does for our brains? Now researchers at the University of Rochester have demonstrated that when mice sleep, their brains flush away cellular waste—including beta-amyloid, a substance associated with Alzheimer’s. Scientists have seen the same plumbing system at work in the brains of baboons and dogs, so they theorize human brains work the same way. That makes sleep “a brain state in which several important housekeeping functions take place,” according to one neuroscientist.

So I’m not going to feel bad anymore about the fact that where I once got by on five hours a night, now it’s more like seven—and if I don’t have a weekend where I get eight or nine at a stretch, I get crabby as hell. My brain may be slowing down, but it’s so clean, it’s practically sparkling. After all, there’s bright and then there’s … bright.