How does poor sleep impact heart health?

  • Poor sleep is associated with a shorter lifetime for heart health, according to a new study of over 300,000 people.
  • The study suggests that people with sleep apnea are most at risk of poorer heart health in the future.
  • In understanding how healthy a person’s sleep is, a range of factors should be considered, including fragmented sleep, overall sleep time, snoring, and other aspects of restorative rest.

A new study reports, for the first time, the effect of poor sleep on the longevity of a person’s cardiovascular health.

Researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia and the University of Southern Denmark analyzed the sleeping experiences and cardiovascular medical histories of 308,683 middle-aged adults.

The study found that sleep disorders are associated with a significant reduction in the number of years of cardiac, or heart, health a person experiences.

Included in the study were clinical sleep disorders such as insomnia and breathing-related disorders, as well as a range of other sleep-related issues, such as schedule/ chronotype (sleep type) conflicts, snoring, and daytime sleepiness.

The two most common breathing-related sleep disorders considered in the study were central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

The analysis revealed that breathing-related sleep disorders were linked to a shortening of a person’s heart-healthy lifespan by around 7 years.

The study appears in BMC Medicine.

What the study found

For women, breathing-related sleep disorders were associated with a 7.32-year reduction in heart-healthy years, and 6.73 years for men.

People who slept poorly, according to the study’s definition, saw an average 2-year reduction in cardiac health.

The study explores the many types of sleep problems and their effect on heart health.

“Sleep is multidimensional and complex,” study co-author Prof. Emmanuel Stamatakis told Medical News Today.

“Our study suggests that it needs to be addressed holistically, and not to limit the discussion to, e.g., sleep duration only,” he noted.

The study’s authors hope it encourages cardiologists and other doctors to bring up the topic of sleep with patients, and work with them to resolve issues that may affect heart health in the long term.

The daily impact of poor sleep

Beyond its long-term health effects, poor sleep can impact people’s daily lives in many ways.

Being overtired increases the risk of accidents due to slower reaction times and lapses of attention, noted Dr. Jonathan Cedernaes, a sleep specialist from Uppsala University in Sweden, who was not involved in the study.

In addition, it may degrade a person’s daily physical performance, impair metabolic function, and promote inflammation, he added. Bad moods, irritability, and an inability to concentrate are all hallmarks of not getting enough sleep.

”We all suffer from poor sleep from time to time, but it’s when it becomes chronic that it may become an issue to worry about — that is when one should consider seeking professional help from healthcare providers,” said Dr. Cedernaes.

Poor sleep and long-term health

Prof. Stamatakis suggested that the especially negative association between breathing-related sleep disorders and cardiac health may have to do with common issues underlying both.

“Breathing-related sleep disorders are caused to a large extent by established cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity,” he pointed out.

Sleep-disordered breathing can also worsen sleep all by itself, resulting in more fragmented, and thus less restorative, sleep, noted Dr. Cedernaes.

He added that poor sleep has also been linked to abnormal regulation of the cardiovascular system, including the heart and blood vessels, as well as increased inflammation, blood pressure dysregulation, and a disruption of the sympathetic nervous system.

What the study did

In the current study, the participants’ sleeping histories were either self-reported or submitted by clinicians. The two types of data were analyzed separately.

In research, there are always concerns about the accuracy of self-reported data. In this case, people may, for example, be asked to assess snoring they themselves do not hear. Prof. Stamatakis said that, nonetheless, self-reported sleep data generally capture the related health risks fairly well.

However, he cautioned that “[b]ecause of compromised accuracy, they [doctors] are bound to underestimate the true health consequences of poor sleep.”

Clinically observed breathing-related disorders reported by general practitioners or hospital doctors are less susceptible to measurement errors.

“This higher measurement accuracy is perhaps one of the reasons why breathing-related sleep disorders appear to have [such] dramatic effects on life expectancy and compromised cardiovascular health.”

– Prof. Emmanuel Stamatakis

The issue with scoring sleep

The researchers assigned each individual a composite sleep score, ranking them as poor sleepers, intermediate sleepers, or healthy sleepers. Clinically diagnosed conditions — insomnia, sleep-related breathing disorders, and other sleep disorders — were considered separately.

Dr. Cedernaes applauded the use of multiple sleep questions in recording participants’ experiences, as it may make the capture of more forms of sleep disruption likely.

However, it is difficult to design a perfect sleep questionnaire, he pointed out. “For instance,” he said, “the questions don’t separate naps versus nighttime sleep, nor weekday versus weekend sleep.”

Dr. Cedernaes suggested that dividing existing inquiries into more specific subquestions may produce different results.

Emphasizing the importance of sleep

While this is the first study to specifically investigate a loss of healthy cardiovascular years due to sleep issues, its findings are supported by previous research, said Dr. Cedernaes. In addition, earlier studies have been backed up by well-controlled interventions.

Fortunately, it has also been shown that “extending sleep — or even taking a nap — can improve such parameters,” the researcher noted.

For people with sleep issues of any kind, the study underscores the value of partnering with one’s physician to identify solutions, especially if one is receiving cardiological care.

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