Your Heart Wants (Needs) More Sleep!


Sleep is not a luxury, it’s vital to health and well-being. The Better Sleep Council reports that half of Americans are aware they are getting too little sleep; the Centers for Disease Control calls America’s fatigue a “public health crisis” and estimates that between 50 and 70 million American adults have a sleep disorder. The CDC points to schedule pressures and (sorry to say it, but it’s true!) computers, smart phones and television as primary causes but notes that bad habits and diagnosable and treatable sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, are major contributors to the problem too.


Whether your lack of sleep is due to a medical problem, anxiety that makes it hard to fall or stay asleep, an overloaded work/family life, or because you are just in the habit of staying up late, it’s worth making some changes if you want to live a long and healthy life.


The Research on Sleep & Heart Health


Here are some of the latest findings on the connection between how much you sleep and the health of your heart:


Getting much less or much more sleep are both linked to a higher risk of heart disease, including heart attack and stroke.


It’s not just about rest. Sleep helps maintain the health of your circulatory system. Researchers found that adults who averaged five or fewer hours of sleep had 50% more calcium in their arteries than those who logged the recommended seven hours each night. And people who slept too much (nine hours/night on average) were in even worse shape, with more than 70% more coronary artery calcium.


Takeaway: It’s smart to establish a regular sleep schedule that ensures you get seven hours of restful sleep each night.


The quality of your sleep matters too. A number of studies have examined the effects of sleep disorders on sleep quality, finding startling links between poor sleep and higher risk of death from a cardiovascular event.


People with poor sleep quality had, on average, 20% more calcium in their coronary arteries than those who sleep well.


Takeaway: If you go to bed early but don’t awaken rested, talk to your doctor to get some help figuring out why.


Sleep apnea (often accompanied by loud snoring) is not just a problem for the person you sleep with – it’s deeply dangerous to your heart health. An estimated 20 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea, which by definition means their sleep quality is poor. Untreated sleep apnea is linked with higher rates of heart disease and premature death. When apnea (a gap between breaths) occurs, blood oxygen drops, causing damage to cells throughout the body. Some people experience hundreds of apnea events each night; new research links these events with early heart damage that, eventually, can cause heart disease and heart failure.


Men with obstructive sleep apnea were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack and up to four times as likely to have a stroke than those who slept seven hours/night. (Note: Those who were widowed or divorced, worked in professions involving medium to heavy physical exertion or didn’t have a high school diploma were at substantially higher risk.)


Women with sleep apnea have different (often more subtle) symptoms than men and, as a result, are less likely to be diagnosed with the condition.


Takeaway: If your significant other says you snore or you have any other symptoms that suggest you may have sleep apnea, see your doctor.


Another heart-health risk is a sleep disorder, called “fragmented” sleep, which is more common with age. (Just as you’d guess from the name, fragmented sleep is a pattern of waking often in the night.)  Fragmented sleep affects blood circulation; older people with this problem are at greater risk for stroke, due to stiffening in their coronary arteries (27% higher risk) and oxygen-starved tissue in their brains (30% higher risk).


Takeaway: Don’t dismiss fragmented sleep as just one of those things that happens as you age – it’s worth discussing with your doctor, who can offer advice on whether treatment is needed to reduce your stroke/heart attack risk.


Sweet Dreams!


Clearly, getting plenty of high quality sleep should be a health priority.  It’s not just about resting so you feel good and have more energy, it’s truly a way to support good heart health. You already know about the four other lifestyle habits that promote good heart health (not smoking, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and limiting alcohol consumption) but did you know that getting enough sleep is like delivering a booster shot to those already important healthy lifestyle habits? Studies show that each becomes more predictive of health when bolstered by regular, high quality sleep. 


In fact, researchers now say that sleeping well is as important to heart health as not smoking!