New research involving Australian and Irish university students found that sleep characteristics mediate the relationship between social class and both physical and mental health. The results suggest that students from higher social class backgrounds may, in part, have better health due to superior sleep patterns compared to their peers from lower class backgrounds. The study was published in the British Journal of Psychology.
Social class categorizes individuals or groups within a society based on their socioeconomic status, typically influenced by income, wealth, occupation, education, and social influence. Those in higher social classes often enjoy more privileges, opportunities, and resources than those in lower classes.
Previous research indicates that individuals from higher social classes generally have superior mental and physical health compared to those from lower classes. For instance, individuals from lower social classes, on average, have a life expectancy that’s two years shorter than those from higher classes. Similar health trends associated with social class have been observed globally.
Study author Romany McGuffog and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether sleep quality might be mediating the relationship between social class and health among university students. Since research has shown that those from higher social classes often experience better sleep quality – a factor associated with better health – the team theorized that sleep characteristics might partly explain the health disparities observed between social classes. The researchers were also curious about the influence of social class on students’ ability to enhance their sleep quality.
Three surveys were administered to students from five major Australian universities, one Irish university, and a large Australian technical college. The authors specifically included institutions with significant numbers of low socioeconomic status students to ensure diverse social class representation.
Of the 1,450 students who participated, over 80% were female, with an average age of approximately 23. The majority identified as White. University students received course credits for their participation, while those from the technical college were entered into a raffle for 11 gift certificates valued at $150 each.
To gauge social class, participants provided details about their education, rated their parents’ occupational prestige and status, shared their childhood socioeconomic background, and assessed their subjective social status using a modified version of the MacArthur Subjective Social Status scale.
Participants also completed assessments on sleep characteristics and general health, including questions on sleep quality, disturbances, duration, pre-sleep worries (e.g., “How often does worrying about your friends affect your sleep?’), and sleep schedule variability (e.g., “On average, how regular are you in going to bed and getting up at the same times each day (including weekends)?”).
They also completed assessments of general physical health (the Health Perceptions Questionnaire), physical health (the Physical Health Questionnaire), general distress (the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale), and self-esteem (“I have high self-esteem”).
The findings highlighted that those from higher social classes reported fewer health issues, reduced distress, improved self-esteem, better sleep quality, shorter sleep duration, fewer pre-sleep concerns, and a more consistent sleep routine.
In-depth analyses demonstrated that sleep quality, duration, disturbances, pre-sleep concerns, and sleep schedule consistency could all mediate the relationship between social class and health. These correlations persisted even when accounting for potential confounders such as gender, ethnicity, evening preferences, and physical activity levels. The study also found that students from lower social classes felt it would be more challenging to improve their sleep environments.
“Sleep needs to be a greater focus when considering the relationship between social class and health. There is robust evidence that sleep interventions can improve sleep quality as well as mental health. Given that people from lower social class backgrounds tend to have more depressive symptoms than people from higher social class backgrounds, and these may be mediated by poor sleep, non-pharmacological sleep interventions could be useful to help improve their sleep and subsequently their mental health,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on the importance of sleep for mental and overall physical health. However, it should be noted that the study design does not allow any definite cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn. Additionally, all study participants were students. Results might not be the same on people from the general population.
The study, “Sleep as a mediator of the relationship between social class and health in higher education students”, was authored by Romany McGuffog, Mark Rubin, Mark Boyes, Marie L. Caltabiano, James Collison, Geoff P. Lovell, Orla Muldoon, and Stefania Paolini.