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14. The Equalizer

Name: Michael Grandner
Title: Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona
Why they're interesting: Probing the relationship between sleep and socioeconomic inequality  

When we look at sleep as a public health concern, it's important to acknowledge that the people who are getting the worst shuteye are often the same people who have the least control over it. As Michael Grandner's work makes abundantly clear, sleep is a socioeconomic issue. Grandner, a psychologist and sleep medicine researcher, studies the relationship between sleep and health, and the environmental and social factors that shape both of them across a wide range of populations. 

We might assume that, when two people with the same sleep habits are in vastly different states of health, genetics are to blame. But Grandner says it's much more likely that environment is behind those differences. Grandner's work is full of data points that drive home that idea. Here's one: The most direct predictor of poor sleep is food insecurity — people who can't afford to put healthy food on the table don't get the rest they need. 

"One of the things I have learned from my research on sleep and inequality is that sleep very much exists at the nexus where the physical body and the external world meet," said Grandner. "Our ability to sleep is largely driven by factors that are not always under our control. And that's where the social environment comes in — if someone is balancing work and family life, working late hours out of necessity, they often don't feel like they have time to sleep. And that just makes everyone worse."

His work emphasizes the complex way that demographic factors — including income, race, geographic location and ethnicity — interact with sleep and health. It's not as simple as "more money, more sleep." (Although that ends up being true a lot of the time.) He's found, for instance, that sleep health is generally poor among low-income residents, with the exception of low-income immigrants, who report getting enough, high-quality sleep. 

In addition to dissecting the sleep-health-environment equation, Grandner sees it as his job to educate people on what we know about sleep and what they can do to improve their own sleep. "I see it as a moral obligation," said Grandner. "I am getting my research paid for by the NIH and other government agencies, so I think it's my job to help the population feel like they are getting something in return." 

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