In total 20,814 people from all across the UK completed the Great British Sleep Survey between March 2010 and June 2012. The geographical distribution of these responses is broadly representative of the population as a whole. Only Scotland and London have slightly more responses than would be expected if it were a perfectly representative sample.
Three quarters of respondents are female, two thirds have a partner and a third live with children. The average respondent is 41 years old, in employment and sleeps poorly - the average sleep score is just 5.1/10. This is to be expected - there is a greater incentive to complete the sleep survey if you are worried about your sleep. So we must avoid inferring population prevalence of sleep problems from this sample, rather focus on the relative differences between subgroups.
Most of us are kept awake by the "racing mind" at some point in our lives - and the results reinforce the role thoughts often have in disturbing our sleep. Worries about tomorrow and the day's events are the most common thoughts that bother us at night. In terms of physical factors, our bodily functions (such as needing to go to the toilet) affect the greatest number of people.
The worst effect of poor sleep isn't how we feel at night - it's how it affects us during the day, both physically and emotionally. Long-term poor sleepers are 7 times more likely to feel helpless than good sleepers and 5 times more likely to feel alone, but also twice as likely to have relationship problems, suffer daytime fatigue and lack of concentration.
Scotland and London top the sleep league with the highest average Sleep Scores. Yorkshire, the North West, East of England, West Midlands and the South West all share the dubious title of worst sleepers in the UK. However there is a good chance that this difference by region is simply due to random variance.
Women have a 10% lower average Sleep Score and a higher percentage of long-term poor sleepers than we find with male respondents. However, the impact of poor sleep is remarkably similar between genders - energy, relationships and mood are the top three most affected areas for both men and women.
It is clear from the survey results that sleep quality decreases as we get older, as our sleep becomes more broken. Alongside this the proportion of people with persistent poor sleep increases, with 49% more people over 60 suffering from long term sleep problems than those in their twenties.
Different things disturb our sleep as we get older. Children keep us awake in middle age before they move out, and as our bodies age bodily discomfort becomes more of an issue whilst the environment has less influence – perhaps as a result of our senses becoming less keen, or retiring to quieter areas.
An incredible 42% of those on sleeping pills have had sleep problems for over a decade. This confirms that sleeping pills are not effective in solving long term sleep problems, but also suggests that sleeping pills are being taken by those who, according to NHS guidelines, shouldn't be – long-term poor sleepers.
Sleeping pills are also associated with poorer general wellbeing, including greater feelings of helplessness, loneliness and being out of control. This highlights the need for evidence-based non-drug sleep solutions to be made available to the general public.