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There isn’t any one magic elixir that can give us perfect health. But regularly getting a good night’s sleep comes close.
Sleep gives your body the time it needs to shut down, repair and regenerate after the stresses of the day. If you’re perpetually short on sleep, it opens you up to more than fatigue — it can cause chronic pain and raise your risk of other serious ailments.
Unfortunately, as you get older, sleep gets even harder to come by. Older adults commonly experience shifts in the quality and duration of their sleep due to a change in their body’s internal clock.
If you regularly have trouble sleeping, you may be wondering if there’s a tipping point where insufficient sleep really starts to have an impact on your health. According to recent research, it appears the five-hour mark is the one to watch out for.
For instance, participants in one study who reported getting less than five hours of sleep on a regular basis had double the risk of dementia of those who reported getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Now, there’s new research that once again pegs the five-hour mark as the danger zone when it comes to your risk of developing multiple life-threatening diseases…
Five hours or less can lead to more disease
Researchers at University College London (UCL) took more than 7,000 people at the ages 50, 60 and 70 from the Whitehall II cohort study and used their information to analyze the impact of sleep duration.
Over a 25-year follow-up, they tracked how long each participant slept, their mortality, and whether they received diagnoses for two or more chronic diseases (known as multimorbidity), like heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
The results were clear: getting five hours of sleep a night or less in mid-to-late life was dangerous for the long-term health of these participants.
At age 50, people getting five hours of sleep or less were 20 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with a chronic disease, and 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with two or more chronic diseases compared with people who slept for up to 7 hours.
In addition, sleeping for five hours or less at the ages of 50, 60 and 70 was associated with a 30 to 40 percent higher risk of contracting two or more chronic diseases when compared with those who slept for up to seven hours.
As if those risks aren’t alarming enough, getting five hours or less of sleep regularly at age 50 was also linked with an increased risk of death. Specifically, the elevated risk of chronic diseases caused by sleep shortage equated to a 25 percent increase in mortality risk.
Interestingly, the research team also reviewed whether sleeping for longer durations of nine hours or more affected long-term health.
There was no clear connection between long sleep durations at age 50 and multimorbidity in healthy people. However, if a participant already had a chronic condition, longer sleep was linked with a 35 percent higher risk of developing another illness. Researchers say this could be due to underlying health conditions that affect sleep.
Sleep added to cardiovascular health measures
Lack of sleep is a very unhealthy matter. But it especially hits your cardiovascular health hard. As such, the American Heart Association has added sleep to its original Life’s Simple 7 (LS7) list as the eighth metric of cardiovascular health (CVH).
“There are a host of other ways that poor sleep could increase the risk of heart disease or stroke, including by increasing inflammation and increasing blood pressure,” observes Jo Whitmore, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
Researchers at Columbia University explored this expanded measure in a recent study of 2,000 middle-aged to older adults from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). These individuals participated in a sleep exam and gave comprehensive data on their sleep characteristics.
The researchers used this data to evaluate which sleep parameters should be prioritized for cardiovascular disease (CVD) prevention. As far as duration, they found that sleeping 7 hours or more, but less than 9 hours, each night was ideal.
“In our study, even a CVH score that includes only sleep duration, the most widely measured aspect of sleep health and the most feasible measure to obtain in a clinic or public health setting, predicted CVD incidence,” says lead author Dr. Nour Makarem, a professor at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
“Our results highlight the importance of embracing a holistic vision of sleep health that includes sleep behaviors and highly prevalent, mild sleep problems rather than strictly focusing on sleep disorders when assessing an individual’s cardiovascular risk,” Makarem adds.
Easing into sleep
Dr. Severine Sabia, lead author of the UCL study, gives some tips for ensuring a better night’s sleep, such as promoting good sleep hygiene by making sure the bedroom is quiet, dark and a comfortable temperature before sleeping.
“It’s also advised to remove electronic devices and avoid large meals before bedtime,” Sabia says. “Physical activity and exposure to light during the day might also promote good sleep.”
Finally, you can help offset age-related decline in melatonin production by adding a melatonin supplement to your evening routine. Or if you prefer not to take supplements, you can drink tart cherry juice before bedtime. A study found when adults had two daily glasses of tart cherry juice, they slept 39 minutes or longer on average and had an up to 6 percent increase in overall sleep efficiency.
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Sleep as a new 8th measure of cardiovascular health — EurekAlert!
Aging and Sleep — Sleep Foundation