The Link Between Sleep Disorders and Heart Disease


A new large-scale observational study published in BMC Medicine finds inadequate sleep may increase the risk of heart disease and premature death by as much as two to seven years.

Researchers at the University of Sydney in collaboration with Southern Denmark University analyzed over 300,000 middle-aged adults from the UK Biobank and discovered that different sleep disruptions were linked to different durations of compromised cardiovascular health when compared to people with healthy sleep patterns.

The study, which examined the severe impact of clinical sleep-related breathing disorders on cardiovascular health, found that men experienced a loss of almost seven years of life free from heart disease and women lost over seven years. Importantly, the study underscores the need to address general poor sleep patterns, like insufficient sleep, insomnia, snoring, late bedtimes, and daytime sleepiness, which were all linked to a reduction of about two years of normal heart health in both men and women.

“Anyone who’s had a few rough nights of sleep knows how it can lead to bad mood and not feeling one’s best, said the study’s senior author Emmanuel Stamatakis PhD in a press release. “Our research shows that, over time, regular poor sleep can lead to significantly compromised cardiovascular health in middle and old age.”  

Stamatakis said that sleep apnea is well known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, but the study’s findings are a wake-up call that poor sleep, in general, can be a tremendous risk to heart health.

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The team used a composite sleep score, including sleep duration, insomnia complaints, snoring, daytime sleepiness, and whether the person was a night owl or an early bird, to classify the subjects into poor, intermediate, or healthy sleep categories at age 40. This classification was then used to compare their overall cardiovascular disease-free health expectancy.

Researchers combined the self-reported data from study participants with clinical information from their doctors two years before the study to compare health outcomes for self-reported sleep patterns and clinically diagnosed conditions like sleep-related breathing disorders. Participants were categorized as poor, intermediate, and healthy sleepers at 40 compared to their health outcomes at an advanced age.

Results showed that women with poor sleep had about two years more compromised cardiovascular health than healthy sleepers, while men had more than two years. Intermediate sleepers also experienced a loss of almost one year of heart disease-free life among women and slightly more among men.

The research team concluded that snoring and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep could potentially indicate future health concerns, making them warning signs to look out for.

“While the average life expectancy of the UK study participants is around 80 years, people with clinically diagnosed sleep-related breathing disorders like sleep apnea lost over seven years of cardiovascular-disease-free life,” said study author Bo-Huei Huang, PhD, in a statement.

Peter Cistulli, the ResMed Chair of Sleep Medicine at the Charles Perkins Centre and Royal North Shore Hospital, said the study’s findings are important because they extend the findings of past studies connecting the effects of sleep on health. “Sleep is a vital biological function that has been under-appreciated in public health policy to date,” he said. “It’s gratifying that these findings shine a light on the importance of sleep, and the need for it to be recognized as a pillar of good health, alongside physical activity and nutrition. The time is right to ensure that sleep is recognized in public health policy,”

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