Getting less than 6 hours of sleep could be deadly for heart patients

Sleeping less than six hours a night could significantly raise a person’s risk of cancer or early death if they’re middle-aged and have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease or a history of stroke, according to work published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, PhD, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine and a sleep psychologist at the Sleep & Research Treatment Center at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and colleagues studied more than 1,600 adults aged 20 to 74 in an effort to clarify the relationship between sleep duration and heart health. Patients were pulled from the Penn State Adult Cohort and categorized into groups based on their diagnoses: stage 2 high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes and heart disease or stroke.

Patients were studied in Penn State’s sleep lab for one night sometime between 1991 and 1998, with follow-ups through 2016. During that study period, Fernandez-Mendoza and co-authors reported 512 people died—one-third from heart disease or stroke and one-fourth from cancer.

Participants with high blood pressure or diabetes who slept less than six hours a night saw twice the odds of dying from CVD or stroke; those with heart disease or stroke who slept less than six hours saw three times the risk of dying from cancer.

“Our study suggests that achieving normal sleep may be protective for some people with these health conditions and risks,” Fernandez-Mendoza said in a release. “However, further research is needed to examine whether improving and increasing sleep through medical or behavioral therapies can reduce risk of early death.”

Though people with high blood pressure or diabetes were twice as likely to die from CVD, Fernandez-Mendoza et al. said it isn’t necessarily a fate they have to accept. If the same patients slept for more than six hours, their increased risk of CVD was negligible.

Fernandez-Mendoza said his team’s study was limited in that their data was based on one night’s sleep in a lab and may be biased since patients often sleep poorly their first night in a new setting.

“Short sleep duration should be included as a useful risk factor to predict the long-term outcomes of people with these health conditions and as a target of primary and specialized clinical practices,” he said. “I’d like to see policy changes so that sleep consultations and sleep studies become a more integral part of our healthcare systems. Better identification of people with specific sleep issues would potentially lead to improved prevention, and more complete treatment approaches, better long-term outcomes and less healthcare usage.”