Poor sleep linked to premature death

January 15, 2012 - 05:00

People with sleeping problems have poorer health and a shorter life expectancy. Research indicates that poor sleep is a problem to be taken seriously.

Everyone knows the feeling of tiredness after a poor night's sleep, but if it persists for several weeks you need to react, especially if you are a man under 45 years of age. (Photo: Colourbox)

If you think you get the amount of sleep you need because you have morning lie-ins, you could be greatly mistaken.

Research reveals that no matter how long you sleep in the morning, you can become ill if you have had poor sleep for a protracted period, lie awake at night or use sleeping tablets.

Serious sleep problems can even indicate that you will have your last night in bed at an all too early age.

"If people say they sleep poorly at night, that is a warning sign in itself. The more sleep problems one has, the greater the risk of illness or premature death," says Associate Professor Naja Hulvej Rod of the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen. "Quality of sleep is important to health, and we probably need to have deep sleep to keep ourselves healthy."

Young men are most affected

The study of 17,000 people, most of whom were men, shows that men with sleep problems have a five times greater risk of committing suicide than other men.

One possible explanation is that poor sleep can be a sign of depression. This tendency is most pronounced among men under the age of 45, perhaps because the need for sleep changes with age.

The study involved too few women to say anything with certainty about their risk of premature death. However, the research shows that both men and women with sleep problems have a higher risk of developing hypertension or type 2 diabetes. It is well known that patients with these diseases have a higher risk of developing fatal cardiovascular disease.

Five groups of sleep problems
It is especially bad if you use sleeping tablets to fall asleep. It could indicate that the problem has deep roots.
Naja Hulvej Rod

It can be difficult to tell if you are in the danger zone. A couple of nights of poor sleep are hardly likely to result in illness, but if poor sleep persists for weeks or months, the outlook can be more problematic.

The study also shows that the more one experiences the five problems listed below, the greater is the risk of becoming ill:

1. Use of sleeping tablets to fall asleep

2. Lying awake most of the night

3. Poor sleep at night

4. Taking a long time to fall asleep

5. Waking early in the morning

Future initiatives to prevent premature death could possibly benefit from looking more closely at sleep disturbances, especially in young men.
Naja Hulvej Rod

The first three factors appear to be those with the most adverse effects on the body.

Poor sleep may be due to stress

Rod states that one of the reasons for many nights of poor sleep can be stress. If this is the case, then several more diseases could be added to the risk list.

"We know from previous studies that sleep problems are one of the most frequent symptoms of stress, but we don't know what the consequences are: is it cardiovascular disease, or cancer, or does one die? This is what we need to study," says Rod, who researches into the long-term effects of stress.

It is difficult to separate symptoms of stress from symptoms of e.g. depression, since they resemble each other.

Sleep disturbances mapped over 20 years

Participants in the study are employed in the French energy company Electricité de France/Gaz de France. They were monitored for 20 years up to 2009 using questionnaires and public registers as part of the so-called GAZEL cohort.

Sleep disturbances are attracting increasing attention in international public health research. The results of this study have been published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Read the article in Danish at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Nigel Mander

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