Research Links Sleep Disorders to Heart Disease

Could sleep disorders be linked to an increased risk of heart disease?

That is the question the American Heart Association (AHA) was addressing when they released a recent statement giving an overview of what is currently understood about sleep and cardiovascular health.

According to the statement, health problems tied to cardiovascular disease may be triggered by too much or too little sleep. Earlier research suggests that sleep irregularities can increase a person’s risk for clogged or hardened arteries, high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.

“We do not know the optimal amount of sleep needed to minimize the risk of heart disease,” said the lead statement author, Dr. Marie St-Onge of Columbia University. However, she did note that individuals who sleep for less than seven hours a night or more than nine hours could be at a higher risk for these conditions.

“There is certainly a vicious cycle that may be going on with sleep and chronic diseases,” said St-Onge. “Bad sleep can increase the risk of obesity which then increases the risk of sleep disorders.”

Obesity is a known risk factor for sleep apnea, which is diagnosed when a person experiences five or more pauses in breathing per hour of sleep. These pauses are the result of a narrowed airway, which can occur when a person is overweight or obese.

The research on sleep and heart health have primarily focused on sleep apnea and insomnia. Insomnia is a condition that causes difficulty falling or staying asleep several nights a week over a prolonged period of time. In the U.S., about 60 million people suffer from sleep disorders or sleep deprivation.

The AHA cannot make a recommendation on how much sleep is needed to prevent cardiovascular disease because there is simply not enough scientific evidence available at this time. However, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society both say that adults should get no less than seven hours each night for overall health and wellness.