Letting School Kids Sleep In Could Add Billions to the U.S. Economy

It could add $83 billion to the U.S. economy in 10 years—and that's a very conservative estimate.


A new report by the RAND Corporation estimates that the U.S. Economy could benefit significantly from delaying the start of the school day to 8:30am.

For years, researchers have advocated for later school start times, since many studies have shown that it would result in positive outcomes for students, such as better academic performance, mental and physical health, and public safety.

School districts, however, have been reluctant to implement such changes out of fear for increased costs, like rescheduling school busses. RAND Corporation’s report employed a novel macroeconomic modeling approach to estimate how a school day starting at 8:30 in the morning would change the economic performance of 47 U.S. states.  

Insufficient sleep has been a major issue amongst middle- and high-school students. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 2 out of 3 adolescents don’t get the recommended minimum of 8.5 hours per night. A big reason for this is the early school start time.

During adolescence, students’ natural circadian rhythm shifts by about 3 hours, leading to later bed times. Since the only way to compensate for this would be later wake-up times, the early start of the school day causes an accumulation of sleep loss in teenagers. This in turn is associated with several health and behavioral risks like depression and alcohol consumption as well as poorer academic performance.

Even though many organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, have recommended high schools and middle schools to start no earlier than 8:30am, fewer than 1 in 5 schools follow this recommendation.

School districts, with their already strained budgets, are afraid of more costs. In addition, there has only been one published study to examine the potential economic consequences of new school times.

In 2011 the Brookings Institution published a paper recommending later start times and “conservatively” estimating that the ratio of benefits to costs would be 9 to 1. It quoted a $17,500 lifetime earnings gain for students as a result of such reform, compared to a cost of $1,950 over a student’s school career. 

The new report from RAND Corporation provides a more comprehensive economic analysis by assuming a universal state-wide shift in school start times to at least 8:30am, and comparing state-by-state and year-by-year economic effects to the status quo of current school start times.

The report notes that, indeed, the largest cost of delaying school would be changing the bus schedules and would come up to $150 per student per year. Additional school infrastructure costs would come up to $110,000 per school. However, the nation-wide economic gains would be huge, coming up to $83 billion within a decade.  

Figure from "Later school start times in the U.S.: An economic analysis" / RAND Corporation

These gains are estimated to come from higher academic performance (including higher likelihood to graduate from high school or college) and reduced car crash mortality. They don’t include gains from the reduction of other health and public risks associated with sleep deprivation in youths like obesity or engaging in violent crime.

Marco Hafner, a senior economist at RAND Europe, the European affiliate of the RAND Corporation, told The University Paper:

"The level of benefit and period of time it would take to recoup the costs from the policy change is unprecedented in economic terms.

Throughout the cost-benefit projections, we have taken a conservative approach when establishing the economic gains. We have not included other effects from insufficient sleep, such as higher suicide rates, increased obesity and mental health issues, which are all difficult to quantify precisely. Therefore, it is likely that the reported economic and health benefits from delaying school start times could be even higher across many U.S. states."

 

 

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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