Irregular Sleep Patterns May Double Heart Disease Risk

A new study conducted by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggests that irregular sleep patterns may double your risk of heart disease. “Our study indicates that healthy sleep isn’t just about quantity but also about variability, and that this can have an important effect on heart health,” says Huang, the lead author on the study.

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease describes conditions that affect how the heart functions. It can refer to heart defects or conditions that cause irregular heart beats. These diseases can also affect the tissues surrounding the heart, such as the blood vessels and arteries. Heart disease includes the following conditions:

  • Congenital Defects
  • Arrhythmia
  • Coronary Artery Disease
  • Dilated Cardiomyopathy
  • Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attack)
  • Heart Failure
  • Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy
  • Mitral Regurgitation
  • Mitral Valve Prolapse
  • Pulmonary Stenosis

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.” This translates into heart disease being the leading cause in 1 of every 4 deaths in the US.

Risk Factors

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are major risk factors for heart disease. According to the CDC, roughly half of Americans (47%) have at least one of these risk factors. Other health issues and lifestyle choices also increase your risk. These factors for heart disease include:

  • Age – Age increases your risk of a variety of health problems. As we age the tissues of the heart and arteries thicken, become weak, or simply break down over time.
  • Sex – Men are at increased risk of developing heart disease. Doctors believe this is due to where men carry most of their weight. A woman’s risk of heart disease increases after menopause.
  • Family History – Your genes may predispose you to developing certain types of heart disease. Your risk may be especially high if a parent developed heart disease at an earlier age than normal.
  • Diet – Diets high in fats, sugar, salt, and cholesterol can contribute to heart disease.
  • Diabetes – Diabetes shares many of the same risk factors as heart disease.
  • Obesity – Excessive weight gain worsens many of the other risk factors for heart disease.
  • Physical Inactivity – Less active, less fit individuals are more likely to develop high blood pressure. They are also more likely to develop diabetes and become obese.
  • Stress – Stress damages your arteries and worsens other risk factors.

Irregular Sleep Patterns: A Major Risk Factor

These risk factors are well documented by decades of studies and research. However, one major risk factor that has gone largely unresearched until now is sleep. “When we talk about interventions to prevent heart attacks and stroke, we focus on diet and exercise,” says Huang. “Even when we talk about sleep, we tend to focus on duration – how many hours a person sleeps each night – but not on sleep irregularity and the impact of going to bed at different times or sleeping different amounts from night to night.”

What we have learned from these decades of sleep studies is that sleep duration is very much a ‘Goldilocks’ zone. If you are getting too much or too little, your health outcomes decline. But when your amount of sleep is ‘just right’ health outcomes improve. These studies show that too much sleep has many of the same negative effects as too little sleep. And both contribute dramatically to many of the same risk factors for heart disease. According to a Gallup poll, the typical American adult gets less than 7 hours of sleep a night. While individual sleep needs may vary slightly, most people perform best on 8 hours of sleep a night. But if the duration of sleep was the only factor, then those who get 8 hours each night should have a lower risk, right? The study found that it may not be that simple.

The Brigham and Women’s Hospital study found that variation in bedtime and sleep duration had a major impact on health outcomes. The data showed those whose bed time varied by 90 minutes or more, and whose sleep duration varied by 2 or more hours a night were at the greatest risk. This group was “more likely to develop metabolic disorders such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.” As a result, this group also reported nearly double the number of heart problems and cardiovascular events.

How Do I Reduce My Risks?

Huang states that “Sleep regularity is a modifiable behavior. In the future, we’d like to explore whether changing one’s sleep patterns by going to bed consistently each night may reduce a person’s risk of future cardiovascular events.” There are many things you can do to ensure a more consistent bedtime, including the following:

  • Have a set bedtime
  • Don’t wait to feel sleepy before getting ready for bed
  • Turn off your phone, computer, and TV an hour before bed
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Have a nightly routine

Altering your habits to ensure a consistent bedtime and sleep duration should help reduce your risks.

Could Sleep Apnea Be To Blame?

The study did not address the causes of irregular sleep patterns, but they hypothesized that frequent waking was a factor. As many as 70 million US adults suffer from a some form of sleep disorder. The most common of which is Sleep Apnea.

Around 1 in 5 adults suffer from mild symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, with 1 in 15 having moderate to severe symptoms. Untreated, sleep apnea contributes to many of the same risk factors for heart disease. Unfortunately, most people who have the condition are unaware that they do. Researchers estimate that only about 20% of cases are ever diagnosed. If you have many of the same risk factors for heart disease or suspect you may not be getting restful sleep, speak with your doctor about sleep apnea.

Thankfully, sleep apnea is easy to treat. The usual, go-to treatment is to use a CPAP machine. With Obstructive Sleep Apnea the airway becomes partially or completely obstructed, preventing the movement of air through the lungs. The most common cause of obstruction is soft palate collapse. The soft tissues of the throat relax too much, blocking the airway. A CPAP works by pumping pressurized air into the airway to prevent airway collapse. However, CPAP masks are large, heavy, and often uncomfortable. As a result, patients often report low compliance with their prescribed sleep apnea therapy.

An equally effective, and less restrictive option is an oral appliance.  An oral appliance is a device designed to fit in the mouth. It shifts the lower jaw forward to prevent soft palate collapse. At Sleep Better Columbus we know the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. And an uncomfortable heavy mask is not the best solution for most patients. We specialize in custom fitted oral appliances. We ensure you get the best fit for a better night’s sleep.

Call Sleep Better Columbus at (614) 362-7292 for more information about irregular sleep patterns.