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Getting poor sleep can significantly impact your overall health. herkisi/Getty Images
  • Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, and poor sleep is a major health issue for women, especially in midlife.
  • A new study finds long-term sleep issues and heart disease are closely linked for women.
  • Women who had chronic insomnia or who slept less than 5 hours a night had a higher risk of heart disease.

The sleep habits you develop in the middle of your life can have a profound impact on your future heart health, according to new research.

The study, recently published in the journal Circulation, found that regularly sleeping fewer than seven hours a night and waking up too early or throughout the night can increase a person’s future risk of stroke, heart attack, and myocardial infarction.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in women, and poor sleep is a major health issue for women, especially in midlife.

While previous studies have looked at how a poor night’s sleep is related to the development of heart disease, it’s been unclear how long-term sleep problems impact the risk of heart disease.

The new findings suggest that long-term sleep issues and heart disease are closely linked and underscore the need to improve heart disease prevention efforts in women.

“More women will die from cardiac disease than from cancer. With control of risk factors we can actually prevent heart disease in women,” Dr. Eleanor Levin, a cardiologist with Stanford Medicine, told Healthline.

The researchers evaluated the sleep habits and health outcomes of 2,964 women between 42 and 52 years of age.

The participants were premenopausal or early perimenopausal, not using hormone therapy, and did not have heart disease.

Over 22 years, the participants completed up to 16 visits where they completed questionnaires about their sleep habits, including whether they have insomnia symptoms and how long they typically sleep, along with mental health issues, like depression, and vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes.

The questionnaire also included questions about their anthropometric measurements, such as their height and weight, blood draws, and heart events, such as myocardial infarction, stroke or heart failure.

Roughly one in four of the women regularly experienced insomnia symptoms, such as trouble falling asleep, waking up in the night, or waking up earlier than planned, and 14 percent frequently dealt with short sleep duration.

About 7% reported habitual insomnia symptoms and short sleep duration.

The researchers discovered that those who had chronically high insomnia symptoms had a higher risk of developing CVD later in life.

In addition, women who regularly slept less than five hours a night had a slightly higher risk of heart disease.

Individuals who persistently had high insomnia symptoms and slept less than five hours a night had a 75% higher risk of heart disease, even when the researchers adjusted for CVD risk factors.

According to the researchers, the findings highlight the impact long-term sleep problems can have on women’s heart health.

There are multiple explanations as to why poor sleep can impair heart function over time.

“Poor sleep likely negatively impacts heart health through a combination of mechanisms, such as increasing sympathetic nervous system activity, dysregulating autonomic nervous system activity, and increasing systemic inflammation,” said Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, CA.

Poor sleep quality is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and insulin resistance, both risk factors for heart disease.

“Lack of sleep makes high blood pressure worse and can lead to bad eating habits with more carbohydrates and sugars, making prediabetes and cholesterol worse,” says Levin.

In addition, many people with insomnia also have sleep apnea, which is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Women have different heart disease symptoms than men and are less likely to be treated properly.

Chen says it’s essential that the medical community address sleep problems in women as part of their overall cardiovascular health management.

Experts say you should aim get about seven to eight hours of sleep a night. People looking to improve their sleep can take the following steps:

  • Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet
  • avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule
  • exercise regularly
  • avoid stimulants, like caffeine, in the afternoon

Medications can be prescribed to treat insomnia and a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine can be used by those with sleep apnea.

“Extra attention needs to be paid in preventing the underlying risk factors of cardiovascular disease — such as hypertension, diabetes, and poor sleep — in order to improve their health outcomes,” Chen said.

New research shows that long-term sleep issues can increase your risk of heart disease later in life. Heart disease is a leading cause of death in women, and the new findings underscore the need to improve heart disease prevention efforts in women.