Dr. Dayna Johnson: 2022 Black History Month Sleep Leaders Part 3

To celebrate Black History Month, Project Sleep is honored to highlight incredible accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans from across the sleep field—from scientists to advocates. Please join us in celebrating Black excellence by spreading the word about these sleep community leaders!

Meet Dr. Dayna Johnson!

Dr. Dayna Johnson, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Johnson’s research has uncovered much about the social contributors to racial and gender disparities in sleep by assessing the effects of social, household-level and neighborhood-level factors in correlation with insufficient sleep.

I like to think that people are not making intentional decisions because they want poor sleep – there’s typically some reason, so understanding the barriers to prohibiting healthy sleep including structural barriers, is really the key to moving towards change.” 

—Dr. Dayna Johnson via Sleep Foundation

Dr. Johnson began her education with a drive to understand why certain groups of people were more likely to have certain conditions than other groups and how it may relate to their neighborhoods and environments. After hearing a talk by Gary Gibbons, M.D., where he mentioned sleep as a risk factor for stroke, Dr. Johnson saw the potential link between neighborhood conditions and cardiovascular disease via sleep. Dr. Johnson had found her niche within sleep health disparities. 

From there, Dr. Johnson went on to earn her Ph.D. in Epidemiologic Science from the University of Michigan where she studied psychosocial stressors and neighborhood characteristics in relation to different sleep outcomes among Hispanic and Black populations. She then completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School where she cites having learned how to measure sleep and analyze sleep variables from different objective sleep studies.

The root cause of sleep and health disparities overall is racism.”

—Dr. Dayna Johnson via Sleep Foundation

Through her research, Dr. Johnson hopes to find solutions to sleep and health inequalities, much of which she believes lies at a structural level. In an interview with the Sleep Foundation, Dr. Johnson discusses racial and environmental factors as contributors to health disparities. She explains that people living in lower income areas, regardless of race, have poorer health than those from more affluent areas.

While this may not be surprising, Dr. Johnson also found that Black Americans living in more affluent areas have worse sleep than White Americans living in the same areas. Education and income are not protecting their sleep health, as they typically should. Dr. Johnson explains that this is likely because of unique stressors that are exclusive to minority groups, such as being a minority at their job and in their neighborhood, exposing them to more experiences of discrimination or microaggressions. Dr. Johnson continues on to talk about how the history of racism in America has shaped neighborhoods and, therefore, produced inequities in access to resources that directly affect sleep and health. 

Dr. Johnson has an extensive list of publications and received both NIH grant funding and the NIH Loan Repayment Health Disparities Award in 2018, and the Chair’s Research Award from the Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School in 2017.

When asked what Black History Month means to her and which role models she celebrates during Black History Month, Dr. Johnson shared: 

Black History Month is a reminder of the unique contributions and sacrifices that have been made by Black individuals. It is a time for us to celebrate and recognize the rich legacy of Black Americans. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. Thus, every day but especially during this month of celebration, I am thankful for the sacrifices that were made to allow me to get an education and be able to become a scientist – something that my grandparents did not have the opportunity to do. I also celebrate my peers and young Black adults, who remind me how important it is to present as my authentic self.”

—Dr. Dayna Johnson

Project Sleep is honored to celebrate Black excellence in the sleep community this month. However, we know this is not only a time for recognition but also an opportunity to reflect on progress yet to be made and to reaffirm our commitment to social justice and equity. Please stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to contact your Members of Congress to help advance our sleep health disparities policy recommendations.

Graphic by Eleanor Wales

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