Penn Medicine Researchers Find Sleep Beliefs Vary Along Racial Lines in Philadelphia

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Media Contact:Jessica Mikulski | jessica.mikulski@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-349-8369August 12, 2013

When it comes to sleep, Penn Medicine researchers are finding out that some things really are black and white. A new study focusing on the sleep beliefs and behaviors of older women in the Philadelphia area found that older black women in the City of Brotherly Love may be more likely to support certain unhealthy practices, beliefs and attitudes about sleep than their white counterparts.  The findings, published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, also point to differences among black and white women in reported snoring, napping, methods for coping with sleep difficulties, and non-sleep behaviors in bed.

“This study represents one of the first attempts to understand everyday sleep practices and beliefs in the community. Also, this is one of the first opportunities to look at how differences in these practices in beliefs may explain black-white differences in healthy sleep,” said lead study author Michael Grandner, PhD, instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at Penn.  “Our results suggests that older black women in our community may be less likely to engage in helpful coping strategies to address sleep problems and more likely to endorse beliefs and attitudes about sleep that may reflect a lack of understanding about the importance of sleep.”

The study included 65 participants recruited from four workshops, held at various community centers in West Philadelphia. All of the subjects were female -- 36 black and 29 white -- with an average age of 69 years.  The women participated in focus groups in which sleep and health were discussed. As part of this, all participants were given a questionnaire to evaluate their beliefs, attitudes, and practices regarding sleep as well as information about sleep complaints.

Overall, the research team found no significant differences between the two groups for overall sleep quality and daytime sleepiness.  This finding corroborated earlier research by Grandner and colleagues at Penn that found that general sleep complaints are not differentially reported in black and white study participants.  In this 2010 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, researchers found that rates of sleep complaints in African-American, Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Other groups were similar to Whites.

However, in the current study, when asked how they would cope with daytime sleepiness, black participants were more likely to nap during the day.  The two groups also differed in strategies for coping with difficulties falling asleep, in that black participants were more likely to drink alcohol (which is more likely to exacerbate problems rather than ameliorate them) and engage in activities in bed other than sleep (which is a common coping strategy but may lead to more sleep difficulties later). These activities included reading or watching television, eating or drinking, worrying or thinking, and arguing or being angry.

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