Fewer Headaches Reported When School Starts Later, UCSF-Led Study Shows

Research indicates that starting school later in the morning yields health and academic benefits for high schoolers, whose natural body clock tends toward late-to-bed, late-to-rise habits. While parents raise concerns about drowsy driving, irritation and impaired school performance, a new study led by researchers at UC San Francisco suggests another reason to push back the start time.

The researchers found that teens with migraines whose high schools started before 8:30 a.m. experienced an average 7.7 headache days per month. This was close to three more headache days than those with later school start times, the researchers reported in their study, which publishes in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain on Nov. 25, 2020.

“Evidence suggests that there is a relationship between sleep and migraine,” said first author Amy Gelfand, MD, a neurologist at the Pediatric Headache Program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, noting that 8 percent to12 percent of adolescents suffer from the disease. “Getting adequate sleep and maintaining a regular sleep schedule may reduce the frequency of migraines.”

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises that teens get from eight to 10 hours of sleep a night. In recognition of adolescents’ delayed circadian clock, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. However, just 18 percent of public middle and high schools adhere to this recommendation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To quantify what impact, if any, school start times have on migraine frequency, the researchers reached out to high schoolers via social media, offering a $10 gift card to complete a brief survey. Approximately 1,000 9th to 12th graders whose headaches fit the criteria for migraine responded to the survey. They comprised 509 students who started school before 8:30 a.m. and 503 who started school after 8:30 a.m.

Both groups had an average 24-minute commute to school, with the earlier-start group waking up at 6:25 a.m. and beginning school at 7:56 a.m., and the later-start group waking up at 7:11 a.m. and beginning school at 8:43 a.m.

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