Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sleep, or the lack thereof, is a terrible drain on America. According to a report released today by the RAND Corporation, absenteeism and low productivity related to tiredness drains 1.2 million working days from our economy each year. That's $411 billion lost to missed alarms, unnecessary sick days, general lack of focus, and early death. (Because yes, tired people die early.)
But what's $411 billion? It's more than 2 percent of our GDP, for starters. It's also more than 3.5 times as much as the annual economic burden of Obamacare—which, according to the Congressional Budget Committee, will cost $110 billion this year. That's right: The healthcare plan—the one that brings coverage to 22 million previously uninsured people and eliminates the low-limit plans that allow Americans to go bankrupt over medical claims—dings the economy far, far less than sleeplessness related to late-night Netflix binges, stress over future medical costs, and who knows what else.
The irony of this would be laughable if it weren't so goddamn bleak. (And if President-Elect Trump didn't boast about sleeping only three or four hours a night or encourage others to do the same.) Trump seems bent on dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The man he nominated to oversee the country's health, Tom Price, has been dogged in his efforts to gut Obama's legislation. He voted against it, drafted a bill to dismantle it, rallied to repeal it. And if he's confirmed as Trump's secretary of health and human services, he'll be in a better position to bury it for good.
By looking at the economic impact of sleep, RAND inadvertently provides a fresh angle on the nation's healthcare costs. Data used for the $411 billion dollar estimate show that 18% of Americans sleep fewer than 6 hours a night. And this may be modest: Figures cited by both Gallup and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are about twice as high.
So, sure: We could grow the economy by kicking millions of people off of their healthcare plans. Or we could think more strategically about spending—working to cut hospital costs and giving people wellness plans that will help them live better. By RAND's estimates, we could add $226 billion to the GDP—that's twice the annual expense of Obamacare—if all the sub-6 sleepers increased their nightly pillow time to something between 6 and 7 hours a night. The president-elect would be wise to remember that before he unleashes his next late-night Twitter tantrum.