Poor sleep a predictor of future heart problems, study finds

woman awake while husband snores

Snoring has been known for some time to be linked to adverse health effects in some but, if a new study is anything to go by, those effects – particularly on the heart – could be far greater than we previously realised. And it’s not just snoring, but other aspects of poor sleep, that are a predictor of cardiovascular disease and other long-term health issues.

Those issues are by no means minor either, with the study suggesting poor sleep is linked to years of heightened heart disease risk and even premature death.

The sobering findings have been delivered by Dr Bo-Huei Huang and his colleagues at the Charles Perkins Centre School of Health Sciences and around the world. Their study analysed the data of more than 300,000 middle-aged adults and concluded that sleep disturbances are associated with different durations of reduced cardiovascular health later in life when compared with healthy sleepers.

Such was the depth and richness of the data that Dr Huang’s team was able to draw conclusions at a relatively granular level. For instance, it found that women with clinical sleep-related breathing disorders had more than seven years less of cardiovascular disease-free life compared with healthy sleepers. For men, the equivalent figure was slightly less than seven years.

Retrieving data from the UK Biobank, the researchers formulated what they refer to as a composite sleep score, which combines such factors as chronotype (the natural inclination of your body to sleep at a certain time), duration, insomnia, snoring and daytime sleepiness.

Dr Huang and his colleagues used these factors to create a sleep score scale that varied from zero to five, which in turn was used to divide participants into three categories. Those with a composite sleep score of four or higher were categorised as having ‘healthy sleep’, scores of two or three were labelled ‘intermediate sleep’ and those with a score of one or below were placed in the ‘poor sleep’ category.

Categorising participants in this way has previously been proven to distinguish different cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk profiles, and could help “lay the cornerstone for future research on early prevention against poor sleep and improving CVD-free life expectancy among poor sleepers”, the report concludes.

“While the average life expectancy of the UK study participants is around 80, people with clinically diagnosed sleep-related breathing disorders like sleep apnoea lost over seven years of cardiovascular-disease-free life,” said Dr Huang.

Dr Huang’s co-author and colleague at Charles Perkins Centre, Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, stressed that sleep apnoea was only part of the equation: “Sleep apnoea is well known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, but these findings are a wake-up call that poor sleep in general can pose significant risk to heart health.”

Previous research done by Dr Huang has shown that those who have trouble with sleep may be able to offset some of the risks that presents through physical exercise, but this was an observational study which, while providing strong evidence for a link, was not conclusive.

With that in mind, your best bet for staying free of heart disease for longer is to try to supplement a healthy waking lifestyle with a regular good night’s sleep. If you are having trouble achieving that, a chat with your GP is recommended.

How good are your sleeping habits? Do you struggle to regularly get a good night’s sleep? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Delaying morning coffee 90 minutes could improve your sleep

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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