Studies Show That Sleep Affects Heart Health

By Gretchen Benson, healthcare project manager

Sufficient sleep has long been associated with good health, but there has been an increased focus on the impact of sleep on heart health in recent years. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found a possible direct link between lack of sleep and calcium buildup in the arteries. This buildup caused plaques that can break apart and cause heart attacks and strokes. Study participants who regularly slept for fewer than five hours a night were the most susceptible to this dangerous plaque buildup.

In a 2011 population study of more than 50,000 people, researchers found that people who suffer from insomnia — difficulty falling or staying asleep — may be at significantly greater risk of these negative heart health effects. Insomnia, which can be either acute (short-term episodes of sleeplessness) or chronic (sleeplessness lasting for months or years), affects up to one in three American adults.

In the 2011 study, people who reported difficulty falling or staying asleep had a 45 percent greater risk of a heart attack compared to those who regularly fell asleep without trouble.

More research is needed to determine exactly how sleep disturbances affect heart health. However, the growing number of studies that associate sleep and heart health point to sleep as yet another risk factor to consider, in addition to the more commonly known factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.

Do you have trouble sleeping? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Track your sleep. Just like most health behaviors, tracking your sleep has been found to be helpful. Keep track of your bedtime and wake time and how you feel when you wake up in the morning (i.e., are you still tired?). This can help you understand if you are sleeping enough and whether you are getting high-quality sleep.
  • Create a good sleep environment. Make your bedroom cooler, darker and quieter. Avoid caffeine, stimulants and screens before bedtime.
  • Talk to your doctor. If you are struggling to sleep well or enough, talk to your health care provider. Bring your sleep journal with you to fully explain your sleep patterns.