Iowa doctors study neonatal sleep for keys to helping adults

IOWA CITY — Doctors in Iowa are studying the brains of babies to learn more about sleep patterns in adults and teens.

The United Health Foundation reports one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep, and about 30% of Iowans fall into that category, which can lead to poor health and affect decision-making abilities. Cognitive processing, mood, blood sugar levels and immune response all are regulated by sleep.

Dr. Ravi Johar, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare, said one of the best things someone can do for their health is to prioritize getting enough rest.

“Adults from about 18 to 60 need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night,” he said. “Adults 61 to 64 are maybe a little bit less, seven to eight; and adults 65 and over usually need about seven hours of sleep a night.”

Johar said insufficient sleep is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including cancer, depression, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. 

While sleep research often focuses on teens and older adults, doctors at the University of Iowa are studying neonatal sleep patterns to learn what they can apply to the rest of the population. They have a deep pool of research candidates, because babies sleep so much.

Sleep researcher Mark Blumberg, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa, said babies also get more of what’s known as “REM” sleep than most adults, giving doctors even more to study.

“When you see that there is specific activity, and a lot of activity that is specifically occurring during sleep – even more in some cases than we see during wake – that occurs in early life,” he said. “And then, you have to couple that with the fact that we sleep most when we’re young. So, you know, when we’re born, we spend 16 hours of each day asleep.”

Blumberg said the university is now ramping up research on babies who were born prematurely and those less than six months of age, and he’s looking for parents of children who fit those guidelines to advance his work.