Researchers Investigate the Difficult Link Between Sleep and Heart Health


Could getting a good night's sleep actually decrease your chances of heart disease or stroke? That's the question the American Heart Association, and many researchers in the medical field, are still hoping to explore.

While there is plenty of evidence suggesting a correlation between a lack of sleep (or too much sleep) and cardiovascular disease risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure, it's more difficult to determine whether one causes the other. And without that causality, it's also impossible for researchers to say whether the right amount of sleep could decrease risk factors.

"We know that short sleep, usually defined as under seven hours per night, overly long sleep, usually defined as more than nine hours per night, and sleep disorders may increase some cardiovascular risk factors, but we don't know if improving sleep quality reduces those risk factors," said Columbia University nutritional medicine professor Marie-Pierre St-Onge.

In Michigan, cardiovascular disease and stroke accounted for 25% of all deaths in 2013. Approximately 34.6% of Michiganders have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, with numbers increasing every year due to an aging population. High blood pressure is the leading cause of heart disease and stroke.

While common sense might suggest that disordered sleeping may lead to other physiological problems, some research indicates that it may be the other way around. For example, patients who have experienced a stroke or mini-stroke are more likely to develop sleeping disorders post-recovery, according to a recent study.

Though approximately 60 million Americans are sleep-deprived or suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, few are aware of the accompanying risks. Many people look only to diet and exercise as ways to stay healthy, but sleep habits may be just as crucial.

"Patients need to be aware that adequate sleep is important, just as being physically active and eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and fish are important for cardiovascular health," said St-Onge. "Sleep is another type of ammunition that we can tailor to improve health."

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