Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Lack of Sleep Linked to Risk for Stroke

When I was an intern getting by on precious few hours of sleep, my mantra became “you can sleep when you’re dead.” Twenty plus years ago, the science of sleep was still in its infancy, and most doctors paid little attention to it. Although sleep is still mysterious in many ways, today we know much more about the ways that sleep impacts our health.

It is well established that people who routinely sleep for six hours or less each night are at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Poor sleep quality can also stifle the immune system. For those with sleep apnea, the stakes are even higher, since the condition has been linked to congestive heart failure, heart rhythm disturbances, and even dementia.

New evidence suggests that relatively healthy people who regularly go without sufficient sleep may be four times as likely as their peers to suffer from a stroke in middle age. A stroke, generally caused by a sudden cutoff of blood supply to a segment of the brain, is essentially the brain equivalent of a heart attack. Although with prompt care many people will make a good recovery, the consequences can be devastating, including paralysis, inability to communicate, and impaired mental capacity.

In a recent presentation at the 2012 meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, Dr. Megan Ruiter from the University of Alabama presented her study of 5666 normal-weight adults ages 45 and up. The analysis took into account other risk factors, so the impact of sleep was able to be assessed independent of blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and other health issues. Although strokes are uncommon in middle age, Dr. Ruiter and her colleagues found that for those getting an average of less than 6 hours of sleep per night, the risk was markedly higher.

Exactly how poor sleep habits can influence stroke risk is still not clear, but there is evidence from other studies that lack of sleep is associated with higher blood levels of inflammation. Inflammation in turn may increase stroke risk.

The message from this and many other studies is clear: make time for sleep. If you suffer from insomnia, check in with your doctor. Hormonal changes, stress, diet, and many other factors can play a role. For the health of your mind and body, don’t just accept poor sleep as a fact of your busy life.

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.