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Dying for a good night's sleep?

Randy Dotinga writes: Here’s something to keep you up at night: People who have trouble falling asleep are three times more likely to die an early death, a new study shows.

That’s especially bad news since we are such a sleep-deprived bunch. In fact, another study showed that nearly one in five Americans doze off in meetings. It’s not clear, however, whether meetings can actually bore you to death.

If you haven’t nodded off yet ….the Body Odd is here to put this in perspective. Being tired can get so much worse. For a handful of people around the world, sleepless nights are truly a death sentence.

Just ask the members of an Italian family who live outside Venice. Its members have been dying for at least two centuries of a brain-destroying illness that's related to both mad cow disease and a deadly condition that kills cannibals.

The disease, fatal familial insomnia, kills by robbing people of their ability to sleep. "First they have uncontrollable sweating, then their pupils become these tiny pinpricks. Then they have trouble sleeping," said D.T. Max, author of "The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery."

Nothing helps, not sleeping pills (they actually make things worse) or warm milk or counting sheep. If afflicted people do get any sleep, they fail to go through all the stages. "They don't get the real sleep that makes you feel better," Max said.

Eventually, they start hallucinating, slip into a coma – and, invariably, die.

The disease appears to go back at least to the 18th century in the Italian family, whose members were long mystified why so many of them died before the age of 60. They thought it was "a disease of exhaustion or stress, brought on by sorrow or loss."

It wasn't. The inherited disease, which affects as many as half the members of an estimated 200 families around the world, appears when proteins known as prions start to malfunction and "literally eat holes in the brain" explains Max.

Prions cause other brain-eating conditions, too. Mad cow disease mad cow disease, which strikes people who eat contaminated meat, is the best known.

But even more gruesome, cannibals in New Guinea in the 1950s started dying of kuru, which is caused by eating contaminated human brain tissue. They've since changed their diet.

There's no cure for fatal familial insomnia, and for now, members of the Italian family continues to attract attention from scientists, journalists and gawkers. And they still wonder if one day they will start feeling tired and never stop.

There is a way to predict the future: Those in affected families can get a genetic test that will tell them if they're doomed to sicken and die in middle age. Some take the test and some don't, just like some refuse to have kids and others do despite the risk.

"It may look at times like they're condemning at least some of their children. But I don't really feel that way," Max says. "To live 60 good years isn't nothing. We're all going to die of something."

Have you struggled with insomnia? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

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