Americans aren’t sleeping- or at least not as much as they should – and it’s causing illness and disease. The extent of America’s sleep problem is well documented. According to the American Sleep Association:
- 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder
- Almost 40% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month.
- Insomnia is the most common specific sleep disorder, reported by about 30% of adults and chronic insomnia by 10%
- 25 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA
Researchers have been studying sleep for decades, examining the role it plays in health and wellness. A wealth of information and statistics have accumulated indicating that sleep deprivation is a contributing cause for several chronic diseases and even death.
Lack of sleep can contribute to 6 chronic diseases
#1: Alzheimer’s disease
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, the disease has no cure, cannot be prevented, and its progression cannot be slowed. While other causes of death in the United States have declined, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased. For example, between the years 2000 and 2015, deaths from heart disease decreased 11 percent while deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 123 percent.
- One in three seniors dies from Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia
- It kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined
Researchers are casting a wide net to find the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Part of the reason is that they believe that brain changes may begin 20 years or more before symptoms actually appear. While physicians can determine whether a person has dementia, they cannot always pinpoint an exact cause. However, studies do show that sleep is necessary to keep the brain healthy and ward off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Sleep can “power” the brain and help it to get rid of waste products that might accumulate and cause cognitive decline.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins studied 70 adults between the ages of 53 and 91 and discovered evidence of the adverse impact of sleep on dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. They reported, “Participants with poor sleep habits were found to have higher quantities of beta-amyloid deposition in their brains, according to PET scans. Ultimately, researchers concluded that poor sleep prevented the brain from clearing beta-amyloid waste that leads to cerebral disease.” Beta-amyloid is a toxic poison that contributes to the formation of plaque in the brain which is a main factor in the development of the disease. Researchers concluded that if poor sleep is modified, or improved, it could help the brain to fight the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
#2: Obesity and diabetes
The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) calls obesity and diabetes “twin epidemics”. More than 90 percent of Type 2 diabetics are overweight or obese. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrate the epidemic, saying that 93.3 million adults in the United States are obese, representing almost 40 percent of the population.
Now studies are increasingly showing a link between sleep and weight. It appears that the less sleep you get, the more weight you can potentially gain. Harvard School of Public Health reported a study that followed 60,000 women for 16 years. It discovered that “women who slept five hours or less per night had a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese, compared to women who slept seven hours a night. They also had a 30 percent higher risk of gaining 30 pounds over the course of the study.”
Why could less sleep cause an individual to become obese? Researchers say there are several reasons including:
- They are too tired to exercise
- They may eat more because they are awake longer
- Less sleep affects the function of hormones that control appetite
Researchers at the University of Chicago had other insights into why short sleep patterns could lead to diabetes. They found that less sleep led to “fatty acid buildup, which impacts both metabolism and insulin sensitivity” and can lead to diabetes. According to an article published in Healthiguide, “The study analyzed the sleep patterns of 19 male participants over three nights, and found that men who only slept for four hours had fatty acid blood levels 15 to 30 percent higher than participants who slept 8.5 hours a night. Those who slept for less time also showed signs of prediabetes and obesity, while those who slept more showed no signs.”
#3: Cardiovascular disease
An estimated 15 million U.S. adults have coronary heart disease and approximately 78 million U.S. adults have high blood pressure. For some of them, lack of sleep could be a contributing cause, especially for those with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing stops and starts abruptly. According to a study published by the Sleep Foundation, “58 percent of men with severe sleep apnea were more like to develop congestive heart failure than men without the disorder”.
How does sleep support a healthy heart? While at rest, the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered, giving the heart the ability to restore itself overnight. The more the heart does not have the chance to refresh itself, the greater the risk that it can lead to chronic high blood pressure. A study published in Cardiology Reviews summarizes the situation saying, “Adequate sleep duration may be important for preventing cardiovascular diseases in modern society.”
According to the CDC, more than 40,000 Americans will commit suicide this year. Tragically, a lack of sleep is thought to be a contributing factor. More than 60 studies from across the world have produced data that connects sleep disturbances and suicidal thinking.
To understand the role that sleep may play in suicide is to understand how lack of sleep affects the brain. Insomnia, which is defined as “difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up too early in the morning”, is associated with cognitive deficits. It can lead to difficulties with problem solving, which is a factor in those who have survived suicide attacks. According to the Psychiatric Times, “In this scenario, the person who is dealt a major setback, such as a broken relationship or job loss, is unable to produce a solution to the problem if he or she has insomnia; this leads to the worst possible solution.”
Multiple studies at Stanford Medicine found that sleep disturbances could predict an increased risk of suicide. One study showed that even for those who had other risk factors for suicide, such as depression and substance use, falling asleep and getting up at widely varying times was a key predictor of increased suicidal symptoms.
A second study at Stanford included 420 young and middle-aged adults. Among the participants, 20 men who “experienced poor sleep” committed suicide. Researchers said, “Chronic lack of sleep was also found to be linked to a 1.4 times higher risk of committing suicide.”
#5: Ulcerative colitis
There are more than 200,000 cases of ulcerative colitis in the United States each year. It is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract and can be especially debilitating. A study of nearly 152,000 women found that “women who slept for six hours or less, despite other risk factors such as age, weight, smoking and drinking were more likely to suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s.”
#6: Prostate cancer
In the United States approximately one in nine men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. Nearly 175,000 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed each year and there are nearly 32,000 deaths. Whether or not a lack of sleep is a risk factor for this particular cancer is a matter of debate. One study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention found that sleep is incredibly helpful for protecting the prostate while another found no association between the two.
In the first case, a study of men in Iceland found that those who had sleep disturbances were 60 percent “more likely to develop prostate cancer” while those who had trouble staying asleep were “nearly 120 percent more likely to be affected by the disease and also experienced an aggressive form of the disease.” Researchers theorize this is because prostate cancer is affected by melatonin levels, which is produced by the brain during sleep.
However, another study found no association between sleep disturbances and a higher risk of prostate cancer. Researchers studied more than 32,000 men and were absolute in their findings saying, “We did not find support for a consistent association between self-reported sleep and risk of advanced or lethal prostate cancer in this large cohort of men”.
Types of sleep disturbances
To determine whether you suffer from sleep disturbances, first familiarize yourself with how they are defined. The most commonly diagnosed sleep disorders fall into five categories:
- Insomnia: being unable to sleep when you are tired, difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or they are waking up too early in the morning
- Sleep Apnea: breathing starts and stops abruptly, may cause gasping or choking, may be accompanied by heavy snoring
- Narcolepsy: falling asleep suddenly, any time, anywhere
- Restless Legs Syndrome: an uncontrollable urge to move the legs while trying to sleep, pain
- REM Sleep Behavior Disorder: the most dangerous sleep disorder that can result in kicking, shouting, talking, inadvertently hurting yourself, and/or someone else
What to do if you have or think you have a sleep disorder
If you believe you have a sleep disorder; if your partner tells you that you snore, or if you continually wake up exhausted, please consult with your doctor. The most important step is to have sleep disorders diagnosed.
To judge whether you are getting a healthy number of hours of sleep, review the recommended hours of sleep information below:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
- Infants (4-11 months): 2 hours to 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Getting enough sleep is extremely important for physical and mental health. The sooner you find out if you have a sleep disorder the sooner you can get it treated. A good night’s sleep will make you feel better, protect your health, and extend your life.
Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics: https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-statistics/
Sleep Disorders: https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-disorders/
Facts and Figures: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures
2018 Alzeimer’s Disease Facts and Figures: https://www.alz.org/media/HomeOffice/Facts%20and%20Figures/facts-and-figures.pdf
Johns Hopkins Brain Talk Podcast: https://www.brainscienceinstitute.org/brain_talk/the_relationship_between_sleep_and_alzheimers_disease
Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity: Twin Epidemics: https://asmbs.org/resources/weight-and-type-2-diabetes-after-bariatric-surgery-fact-sheet
Adult Obesity Facts: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
Sleep Deprivation and Obesity: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/
6 Diseases Caused by a Lack of Sleep: https://www.healthiguide.com/health/6-diseases-caused-by-a-lack-of-sleep/
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-heart
Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease- a Review of the Recent Literature: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845795/
Mortality in the United States, 2012: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db168.htm
The Correlation Between Sleep Disturbance and Suicide: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/correlation-between-sleep-disturbance-and-suicide
Sleep disturbances predict increased risk for suicidal symptoms, study finds: https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/06/sleep-disturbances-predict-increased-risk-for-suicidal-symptoms.html
Poor sleep quality increases suicide risk for older adults, researcher finds: https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2014/08/poor-sleep-quality-increases-suicide-risk-for-older-adults–rese.html
What is Ulcerative Colitis?: http://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-are-crohns-and-colitis/what-is-ulcerative-colitis/
Sleep Duration Affects Risk for Ulcerative Colitis: A Prospective Cohort Study: https://www.cghjournal.org/article/S1542-3565(14)00627-2/pdf
Key Statistics for Prostate Cancer: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/prostate-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
Sleep Disruption Among Older Men and Risk of Prostate Cancer: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/22/5/872
Sleep Duration and Disruption and Prostate Cancer Risk: a 23-Year Prospective Study: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/25/2/302
How to Diagnose & Treat the 5 Most Common Sleep Disorders: https://www.aastweb.org/blog/how-to-diagnose-treat-the-5-most-common-sleep-disorders
How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessivesleepiness/content/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need-0