Sleep is a function that our bodies heavily depend on to maintain overall wellness. From regulating blood sugar, repairing cells, clearing out waste in the brain, building muscle, balancing hormone levels, and more, sleep is vital to our health. Many studies highlight the importance of getting 7-9 hours of sleep, and of maintaining the regularity of your sleep routine– it can benefit weight loss and decrease the risk of many other health risks. New research now highlights that the impact of good sleep is also reflected by your overall cardiovascular health.
Apart from other lifestyle habits that can help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, including regular physical activity, decreasing sugar intake, not smoking, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy weight, sleep is something that should be safeguarded. A study that analyzed data from more than 172,000 people over five years evaluated sleep habits based on five factors:
- Falling asleep easily
- Staying asleep
- Getting seven to eight hours of sleep
- Waking up rested
- Whether sleep medicines were used
People were scored on how many of the five habits they had. At the end of the study, the scores were compared to the National Death Index records to evaluate whether sleep habits contributed to an early death from certain diseases or any cause. Other potential causes of death were factored out (e.g., alcohol consumption and other health conditions).
The data revealed that “Compared to individuals who had zero to one favorable sleep factors, those who had all five were 30% less likely to die for any reason, 21% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, 19% less likely to die from cancer, and 40% less likely to die of causes other than heart disease or cancer,” according to a statement on the study.
Men who followed all five of the healthy sleep habits had a life expectancy that was 4.7 years greater than people who had none or only one of the five elements of low-risk sleep, the study found. Women were shown to only gain 2.4 years compared to those who did not follow any, or only one of the sleep habits. Why the difference between genders? It may be due to sleep issues like obstructive sleep apnea, often being overlooked and underdiagnosed in women. Obstructive sleep apnea can be life threatening if untreated and may also lead to other life-shortening diseases, including coronary artery disease, heart attacks, heart failure and strokes.
It isn’t easy for everybody to follow all five sleeping habits, however. Many people struggle to fall asleep, with over 25% of Americans using a sleep aid to help them get some rest. As if the frustration of wanting to sleep and counting the passing minutes wasn’t enough, research now also links insomnia to an increased risk of heart attack. The risk wasn’t slight- with those suffering from insomnia having a 69% higher risk of a heart attack than those without a sleep disorder. If other risk factors were also present, the risk increased even more.
“Insomnia puts the body under stress which triggers [the stress hormone] cortisol release and can accelerate atherosclerosis,” said study author Yomna Dean, a medical student at Alexandria University in Alexandria, Egypt. Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of plaque in and on the artery walls that can set the stage for a heart attack.
The findings were published February 25th, 2023 in Clinical Cardiology . A research team led by Dr. Tianyi Huang at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital set out to explore whether irregular sleep patterns increased the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events. The study was supported by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and National Center for Advancing Translational Studies (NCATS).
2,000 participants ages 45-84 who had their sleep-wake patterns tracked for seven days using a device called an actigraph, which resembles a smart watch. The actigraph measures periods of activity and rest to estimate waking and sleep. They also underwent an at-home sleep test and completed a questionnaire about their sleep habits. None of the participants had cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.
- Those that slept < five hours a night had the highest risk of heart attack.
- During the study, 111 participants had cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, or death from a cardiovascular cause).
- Irregular sleep led to twice the risk of cardiovascular disease than those with regular sleep.
- The association between irregular sleep and cardiovascular disease was stronger among minority populations, particularly African Americans, than white participants.
The findings from these new studies only further highlight how lack of quality sleep can impact our health. Irregular sleep is being explored as an independent risk for cardiovascular disease, with the end-goal being to better understand exactly how sleep can be used as another tool to decrease the risk of the disease. If you struggle to get regular, quality sleep, read our posts on sleep hygiene, and the importance of decreasing light exposure before sleep. If you still find yourself tossing and turning, or waking up tired, speak to your provider to rule out any health issues that may be contributing.