Three new abstracts presented recently about sleep deprivation in adults at the SLEEP 2017 research conference in Boston, Massachusetts shed light on novel associations between poor sleep and serious disease in a modern American population. These new results from sleep disorder studies indicate that sleep’s impact on the average American’s quality of life, healthcare costs and productivity is even larger than previously thought and highlight the large and growing need for employers and policymakers to prioritize sleep health.
New Findings – Insomnia
Researchers, led by Penn State’s Edward Bixler, examined data gathered from the Penn State Adult Cohort, a randomly-assembled group of over 1,700 adult Pennsylvanians whose health has been followed for more than 10 years. Bixler’s team has previously investigated this group and determined that people who were diagnosed with insomnia and who slept less than 6 hours per night were at increased risk for diabetes, hypertension and, in men, an overall increase in mortality compared to people without insomnia who slept more than 6 hours per night.
The Bixler team’s recent work expands on these results by examining the association between short sleep duration and risk of death caused by cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. Statistical analysis shows that people who slept less than 6 hours per night, regardless of the presence or absence of a clinical sleep condition like insomnia, were at significantly greater risk of dying from causes like heart attack or stroke than were those who slept more than 6 hours per night. Interestingly, this association was based on objective measurements of sleep time, made by sleep health clinicians, rather than self-reported, or subjective, measurements of sleep, which have been historically difficult to associate with risk of disease. This reinforces the concept that people, especially those whose jobs require sleep disruption, overestimate the amount of sleep that they get and, therefore, may not recognize that they are at increased risk of disease associated with short sleep duration.
New Findings – Obstructive Sleep Apnea
In another abstract, Bixler’s team reported that people with mild and moderate obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), defined as those having between 5 and 30 occurrences of apnea per hour of sleep, were found to be at significantly increased risk of developing hypertension. This increase in risk was found to be more pronounced in younger people than in older people and was found even in people who didn’t otherwise exhibit symptoms of OSA. Bixler’s third abstract demonstrates the association between moderate OSA, with between 15 and 30 apneic events per hour of sleep, and diabetes. While severe OSA has long been associated with metabolic issues including obesity and type 2 diabetes, this study suggests that a much larger population is living with an increased risk of metabolic disease. These findings held true even for those who didn’t exhibit other symptoms of apnea, like excessive snoring or fatigue. Since metabolic disease itself drives the development of severe OSA, early detection and treatment of subclinical apnea has the potential to limit the most problematic consequences of poor sleep.
What It Means
By highlighting the connections between poor sleep and some of the most costly, deadly and, unfortunately, common diseases faced by American adults, this work underscores the potential repercussions of ignoring sleep health while also shedding light on the true scale of the problem. Although the potential consequences of poor sleep are dire, Bixler’s research suggests a simple solution: get more, and better, sleep.
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