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Larks and owls and health, wealth, and wisdom

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 19 December 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1675
  1. Catharine Gale, research fellow,
  2. Christopher Martyn (c.martyn{at}, clinical scientist
  1. MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Southampton University, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO16 6YD
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Martyn


    Objective: To test the validity of Benjamin Franklin's maxim “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

    Design: Cross sectional analysis of sleeping patterns in a nationally representative group of elderly people, and longitudinal investigation of mortality.

    Setting: Eight areas in Britain (five in England, two in Scotland, and one in Wales).

    Subjects: 1229 men and women aged 65 and over who in 1973-4 had taken part in a survey funded by the Department of Health and Social Security and for whom data on sleeping patterns, health, socioeconomic circumstances, and cognitive function had been recorded.

    Main outcome measures: Self reported income, access to a car, standard of accommodation, performance on a test of cognitive function, state of health and mortality during 23 years of follow up.

    Results: 356 people (29%) were defined as larks (to bed before 11 pm and up before 8 am) and 318 (26%) were defined as owls (to bed at or after 11 pm and up at or after 8 am). There was no indication that larks were richer than those with other sleeping patterns. On the contrary, owls had the largest mean income and were more likely to have access to a car. There was also no evidence that larks were superior to those with other sleeping patterns with regard to their cognitive performance or their state of health. Both larks and owls had a slightly reduced risk of death compared with the rest of the study sample, but this was accounted for by the fact that they spent less time in bed at night. In the study sample as a whole, longer periods of time in bed were associated with increased mortality. After adjustment for age, sex, the presence of illness, and other risk factors, people who spent 12 or more hours in bed had a relative risk of death of 1.7 (1.2 to 2.5) compared with those who were in bed for 9 hours. The lowest risk occurred in people who spent 8 hours in bed (adjusted relative risk 0.8; 0.7 to 1.0).

    Conclusion: These findings do not support Franklin's claim. A “late to bed and late to rise” lifestyle does not seem to lead to socioeconomic, cognitive, or health disadvantage, but a longer time spent in bed may be associated with increased mortality.

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