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Americans wake up to sleep disorders

NEW YORK — Marti Newman got her wake-up call behind the wheel of her car. 

“I was around here driving by myself about 7:30 in the morning,” she remembers. “It was only after I went over the side and I started to hear gravel that I realized I was slowly going off the road.”

Newman had nodded off — and it wasn't the first time. A sleep study later revealed she suffered from sleep apnea — a dangerous condition that robbed her of oxygen and rest at night.

For this wife, mother, teacher and part-time clown, the diagnosis explained a lot.

“I was so tired from lack of sleep, I couldn't be a clown, I couldn't be a teacher. I had no energy to do anything,” Newman says.

Studies show some 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. Up to 15 percent of adults battle frequent insomnia. Yet most of these sleep problems are believed to go undiagnosed.

“People will find all sorts of explanations as to why they might be tired,” says Dr. Michael Thorpy of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Very often they don't realize that it is the manifestation of an underlying sleep disorder.”

Sleep problems also are being better understood as a major public safety issue, particularly on the nation's streets and highways, where an estimated 100,000 accidents a year are attributed to drowsiness.

Researchers in Virginia, who monitored drivers with cameras and sensors, got an eyeful.

“It was really quite surprising to us that fatigue and driver drowsiness was playing as big an impact in the crashes and near crashes that we collect the data on as it did,” says Dr. Charlie Klauer with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. 

Yet Americans are burning the candle at both ends — from more kindergartens doing away with naptime, to the rest of us cramming more distractions into the bedroom.

How much sleep do we need?

“People will vary,” says Thorpy, “usually somewhere between seven-and-a-half and eight hours is normal.”

Marti Newman is now sleeping and feeling better thanks to a special breathing mask.

“My blood pressure is down because my heart is not working as hard as it was before,” Newman says.

Her story is a lesson the rest of us may want to sleep on.

Tuesday on NBC Nightly News: How the lack of sleep hurts the human body.