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  • New research links inconsistent and irregular sleep with increased risks for hypertension.
  • The study includes data from over 12,000 participants but does not include information about social determinants of health like gender and race.
  • The researchers used an under-the-mattress-style monitor and traditional blood pressure monitors to make the link.

New research published in the medical journal Hypertension found going to bed just 34 minutes later is linked to a significant rise in the risk of developing high blood pressure.

The study’s authors, the majority of whom are from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, looked at people with irregular sleep patterns and whether or not that was linked to an increased risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure

The participants were part of a worldwide sample that was studied for nine months, a larger time frame—according to the researchers—as compared to previous studies of this type.

The study included 12,287 adults between the ages of 38 and 62, with 88% being men, and all of them being defined by the researchers as overweight.

The researchers used a combination of a below-the-mattress sleep measuring device and regular blood pressure recordings to make the connection.

They found that having irregular sleep patterns could lead to a 9% to 17% increased risk of high blood pressure, regardless of how much total sleep you get. Further, the researchers also observed that even slight variations in bedtime from night to night, as little as 34 minutes, could lead to a 32% increased risk of high blood pressure.

Dr. Allen J. Taylor , chairman of cardiology at MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, says that the value of studies like this is that it provides more data to inform people seeking medical care about how rest can impact your risk of hypertension.

“The more specific you can make behavioral suggestions, the more likely they’re going to be carried out. I think sleep is a very specific suggestion.”

Taylor and his peers see sleep and its relationship to hypertension as part of a larger whole that includes other areas of behavioral change.

“I think just like diet … sleep is something we all do every day. So like, we recommend any sort of lifestyle practices to improve our health. And that could include diet and exercise. Sleep is one of the strategies and stress [level] is another good example.”

One area that the study doesn’t interrogate is the possible impact of social determinants of health—areas like gender, race, and socioeconomic status— could have on the results. It’s something that Dr. Karen D. Lincoln (PhD), a professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of California-Irvine, would like to see in future work.

“…When we talk about interventions and what are the things that we can do to target interventions or to increase [and] promote health, having a little bit more information about socioeconomic status; which is education, where people live, what people have access to; is really important because eating better and, eating organic, some of those things are inaccessible to other populations.”

While Lincoln is unsure of the immediate impact of the study within her work—at the intersection of African-American communities, cognitive impairment, and sleep— beyond confirming what is already known in the field, she says that her hope is that this area of research can delve into the indirect relationships that spring up when it comes to sleep and hypertension.

“So, for example, people who are sleep deprived, who don’t sleep enough overall are more likely to engage in what we would call unhealthy behaviors, right? So you are more sedentary because you’re tired, you’re less likely to exercise, you’re more likely to eat, comfort food, like salty foods, sweet foods, and things like that. And so sleep in and of itself, produces certain types of behaviors that can ultimately cause high blood pressure.”

Lincoln also points to locational factors, like a lack of available grocery stores and public parks, as a lens that we can use to understand the research area. In other words, sleep irregularity—often called sleep disruption in the United States—has a knock-on effect.

A new study finds evidence that inconsistent and irregular sleep may lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure. Experts say more research is needed to verify the findings.

For Taylor, the study confirms that a correlation exists between hypertension and sleep irregularity. Now, it’s about drilling down into what’s happening from a physiological point of view.

“I think the notion of what the mechanism [is], what’s happening here has its own importance. Just so we can fill in the biologic understanding between the observation and the associations that have been made.”