Many studies have highlighted the importance of getting enough sleep and the benefits for our health and well-being. Researchers are now also finding that poor sleep can increase the risk of heart disease by as much as 141%.
In a recent study, researchers from the University of South Florida observed multiple aspects of sleep health, such as regularity, satisfaction, alertness during waking hours, the timing of sleep, sleep efficiency and sleep duration and connected them to physician-diagnosed heart disease.
Based on data from the Midlife in the United States study, researchers measured and reviewed sleep information of 6,280 adults with an average age of 53. Among the participants, 633 wore a research device called an actigraph around their wrists. (Actigraphy is a non-invasive technique used to monitor cycles of activity and sleep over several days/weeks). Participants also self-reported their sleep characteristics and heart disease history.
The study found each additional increase in self-reported sleep health problems was associated with a 54% increased risk of heart disease. However, the estimated risk of heart disease connected with an increase in sleep health problems was much higher for those who both self-reported sleep data and wore the research device—specifically, a 141% increase.
“Healthy sleep is critical for preventing damage to the heart. During non-REM sleep, the heart rate slows down, blood pressure drops and our breathing becomes more stable,” Natalie Dautovich, PhD, an environmental fellow at the National Sleep Foundation and an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Seasons. “These are important shifts in functioning that reduce stress on the heart and give it a chance to recover from any stressful experience during the day.”
How race and gender play a role
The research team also asked participants about their health and looked at other variables, including family history of heart disease as well as demographic factors, such as race, sex, smoking, depression and physical activity.
The team found that while women reported having more sleep health problems, men were more likely to suffer from heart disease, but gender overall did not impact the correlation between the two factors. Black participants also had more sleep health issues and were at higher risk of heart disease than white participants, but the association between sleep health and heart disease did not generally differ by race.
“The link between sleep and heart disease was the same strength in women and men,” said Yo-El S. Ju, MD, a neurologist, sleep physician and professor of neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine. “The takeaway is that sleep health is important, regardless of sex, and people should not ignore problems with their sleep.”
While a family history of heart disease is a strong factor, Ju said it’s important to focus on modifiable risk factors that also play a substantial role in affecting whether an individual will get heart disease or not.
Reasons why people struggle with getting quality sleep
According to Dautovich, people struggle with getting good sleep for several reasons, including stress, feelings of loneliness/isolation, and lifestyle behaviors.
“Exposure to electronics, regular exercise and activity during the day – and what we’re eating and drinking – can impact our sleep quality as well,” she said. “We also know that alcohol and caffeine intake is important.”
As a sleep physician, Ju says another common reason for poor sleep is people not prioritizing sleep as highly as other activities.
“People are often surprised by how much they improve their sleep, and subsequently how much better they feel and think, after they make changes to get sufficient and regular sleep,” she said.
Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (abnormal breathing during sleep) or restless legs syndrome (uncomfortable sensations in the legs) are additional common causes of sleep disruption.
The dangers of getting poor sleep
Beyond developing a risk for heart disease, Dautovich said a lack of high-quality sleep can lead to other dangers, including high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and other detrimental physical and mental consequences—even an increased risk of a car accident.
“There’s a reason why we spend at least a third of our lives asleep on average,” she said. “We know that if we have deficient sleep, we are more likely to develop diabetes, hypertension, obesity and even higher risk of mortality.”
Long-term impacts of sleep disturbances and disorders are also commonly associated with dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, according to Ju.
How much sleep you should be getting based on your age
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends adults get seven or more hours of sleep per night. While some adults need more or less sleep than others, Ju said the vast majority need seven to nine hours.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following guidelines:
|Age group||Recommended hours of sleep per day|
|Newborn (0-3 months)||14-17 hours|
|Infant (4-12 months)||12-16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)|
|Toddler (1-2 years)||11-14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)|
|Preschool (3-5 years)||10-13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)|
|School-age (6-12 years)||9-12 hours per 24 hours|
|Teen (13-18 years)||8-10 hours per 24 hours|
|Adults (18 and older)||7-9 hours per 24 hours|
How to improve your sleep
There are several things you can do to improve your overall quality of sleep—for not just yourself but for the older adult in your care. Ju and Dautovich recommend the following:
- Set a regular bedtime and wake time every day.
- Exercise (vigorous exercise will increase slow-wave sleep that same night).
- Minimize screen time and lights from screens in bed.
- Avoid sources of stress.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
- Keep bedrooms dark, cool and quiet.
- Set bedroom temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Engage in relaxing activities (journaling, meditation and reviewing calendar).
- Avoid long-term use of over-the-counter sleep aids.
“If you’re still having difficulty with your sleep, the first line of treatment that is recommended is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, especially if you are an older adult,” Dautovich said.