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Experts say sleep patterns can have an overall effect on your health. Flashpop/Getty Images
  • Researchers say older adults who have poor sleep patterns may have a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis.
  • Experts note that disrupted sleep has a wide range of health effects on cardiovascular and other health.
  • They say you can improve your sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day as well as electronic devices are stored away and your bedroom is at a conducive temperature.

People over 45 who sleep a varying number of hours or fall asleep at different times could increase their risk of developing atherosclerosis, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers analyzed fatty deposits on artery walls in people with irregular sleep habits compared to those with more consistent sleep patterns.

The researchers noted that plaques can burst, potentially causing blood clots that block the artery and could lead to heart attack or stroke.

As the plaques build up, the arteries narrow, reducing blood flow and decreasing oxygen and nutrients in the body.

The researchers looked at 2,000 study participants, drawn from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).

They were between 45 and 84, with an average age of 69.

The breakdown of ethnicities was:

  • 38% White
  • 28% Black or African American
  • 23% Hispanic American
  • 11% Chinese American

Between 2010 and 2013, participants wore a wrist device that detected the time they were asleep and awake.

They also completed a sleep diary for 7 consecutive days and a one-night in-home sleep study to measure sleep disorders involving breathing, sleep stages, waking after sleep onset, and heart rate during sleep.

The most significant irregularities the scientists observed were variations of more than 2 hours and a variation of falling asleep of more than 90 minutes within one week.

Researchers gauged the presence of plaque in the arteries by measuring the following:

  • Calcified fatty plaque building in the coronary arteries
  • Fatty plaque building in carotid (neck) arteries
  • The thickness of the inner two layers of the neck arteries
  • Narrowed peripheral arteries in the ankles

The findings included:

  • Participants with irregular sleep durations that varied by more than 2 hours within one week were 1.4 times more likely to have high coronary artery calcium scores, 1.12 times more likely to have plaque buildup in their neck arteries, and 2 times more likely to have abnormal results from the arteries in their ankles compared to those with more consistent sleep durations.
  • Participants with more irregular sleep timing of more than 90 minutes within a week were 1.43 times more likely to have a high coronary artery calcium score when compared to people who had a variance of 30 minutes or less within a week.
  • There was no association between sleep duration irregularity and abnormal thickness in the layers of the neck arteries.
  • There was little evidence linking sleep timing irregularities with other cardiovascular disease markers

“It has been well established that sleep apnea is strongly linked to the development of cardiovascular disease and stroke,” said Dr. Hoang Nguyen, an interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.

“The underlying mechanism for this makes intuitive sense in that sleep apnea decreases oxygen delivery to vital organs, promoting an inflammatory response and ultimately leading to cardiovascular disease,” he told Healthline. “What is interesting about this study is that the authors went beyond the quality of sleep and investigated the regularity and duration of sleep.”

“The authors suggested that disturbance in sleep regularity promotes cardiovascular disease by disturbing the natural circadian rhythm,” Nguyen added. “This then affects inflammation, glucose metabolism, and sympathetic neurohormonal response. All these factors are known to cause cardiovascular disease. Linking circadian rhythm disturbance to maladaptive changes in inflammation and sympathetic response is interesting.”

Poor sleep, including low quality, abnormal quantity, and fragmented sleep, is linked to heart disease, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other cardiovascular conditions.

The American Heart Association lists sleep in their list of Life’s Essential 8 key recommendations to improve and maintain optimal cardiovascular health. Their recommendation for adults is 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

“Intermittently shortened sleep is an issue that many Americans have probably experienced at one time or another,” said Dr. Devin Kehl, a non-invasive cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

“In fact, more than one-third of the study population had sleep duration variability of more than 90 minutes,” he told Healthline. “This is provocative in that, as the authors point out, it identifies a readily modifiable lifestyle parameter that could impact one’s cardiovascular risks.”

One of the study’s limitations is measuring sleep and atherosclerosis together, the researchers noted. However, they do feel there is a connection between the two.

“I do believe that sleep habits and atherosclerosis, in general, are related, but it’s hard to say which came first, the chicken or the egg,” said Dr. Doris Chan, DO, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn.

“Atherosclerosis with development of heart failure will affect sleep quality and habits, and we do believe that high levels of stress hormone from lack of sleep, frequently interrupted sleep, and poor-quality sleep increase levels of inflammatory markers which are highly associated with heart disease/atherosclerosis,” she told Healthline.

Sleep can be hard to come by for many people.

More than one-third of people in the United States sleep for less than seven hours each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jeani C Thomas, MSN, a member of the Senior Core Faculty at the College of Nursing, Walden University, provided Healthline with tips for healthy sleep habits:

  • A sleep schedule includes at least 7 hours, waking at the same time and going to bed at the same time each night.
  • Removing items from the bedroom that stimulate your senses, such as a clock with a lighted dial or television.
  • Sleep in a dark room with nightlights in the bathroom.
  • If your phone is in the bedroom, ensure that it is silent.
  • Set the temperature of your bedroom to ensure you will fall asleep.
  • Relax before going to sleep, reading, or listening to calming music or meditation.
  • Avoid eating before bedtime. Limit fluids and avoid caffeinated products.
  • Do not nap in the evening.
  • If using a sleep aid, take this medication for at least one hour before bed.
  • When you wake in the night and do not fall back to sleep, get up and relax until you are ready to fall asleep.

Sleep is essential to every part of your body to recover from the stresses placed on the systems during our waking hours, Thomas said.