How improving sleep quality can reduce risk End-shutdown

Sleep really is a lifesaver.

A pair of studies published this week at a major cardiology conference found that while insomnia can increase your risk of heart attack, consistent, high-quality sleep habits could add years to your life.

People with insomnia are 69% more likely to have a heart attack, compared with those without the sleep disorder, according to a new analysis of past research presented Friday at the American College of Cardiology annual conference.

The study by an international team of researchers examined the connection between insomnia and heart attacks through data from more than 1 million adults, average age 52, from six countries. The people was categorized as having insomnia if they had at least one of the three symptoms:

  • Difficulty getting to sleep.
  • Difficulty staying asleep.
  • Waking up too early in the morning.

The symptoms had to be present for at least three days a week for at least three months. Over an average of nine years of follow-up, people who regularly slept five hours or less were 56% more likely to have a heart attack than those who got the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, regardless of age or gender.

The researchers hope the study will raise “awareness about the importance of sleep in maintaining a healthy heart,” said the study’s first author, Yomna E. Dean, a medical student at Alexandria University in Alexandria, Egypt.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important it is,” Dean said.

“Some people may not necessarily be insomniacs, but are sleep deprived by choice,” Dean added. “That is common today. These findings apply to everyone who sleeps five hours or less a night.”

An estimated 10 percent of Americans have some form of insomnia, and it’s more common in women, said Dr. Sanjay Patel, director of the Center for Cardiovascular and Sleep Outcomes Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

“At least part of the reason for that may be that two of the most common risk factors for insomnia are anxiety and depression, which are more common in women,” Patel said.

a second study presented at the meeting focused on sleep quality. Researchers found that good sleep habits can benefit your heart and overall health, and even life expectancy. They also found that 8% of deaths from any cause could be related to poor sleep patterns.

People with the best sleep quality lived longer, according to the study: an additional 4.7 years for men and 2.4 years for women.

Stress is often the root of brief bouts of insomnia, Patel said. For some people, that short-term stress “takes on a life of its own,” he noted. “Then not sleeping becomes the new stress. The more you worry about it, the harder it will be to fall asleep. I’m a little concerned that this study may worsen insomnia for some people who will worry that if they can’t get any more sleep, they’re going to have a heart attack.”

How to improve sleep

Patel’s suggestions include:

  • Make sure the bedroom environment is comfortable and quite dark.
  • Avoid any chemicals that stimulate your brain. Caffeine should be avoided for at least eight hours before bed. Nicotine and tobacco products should also be avoided. “Instead, you want to find things that help you relax,” Patel said.
  • Avoid looking at a clock. “Seeing what time it is makes people even more stressed because they’re not sleeping,” Patel said. “We want people to do things that are brain-numbing and maybe even a little boring.”
  • Read a book or play a mindless game on the computer. Knitting or listening to music can help transition to sleep.
  • Avoid naps. Clinical trials have shown that some short-term sleep deprivation can help improve sleep. “No matter how poorly you slept, you want to force yourself to get up and you want to avoid naps during the day,” Patel said. “You’ll be training your brain to recognize that if it doesn’t sleep for the amount of time you’ve given it, it won’t sleep any more.
  • Get plenty of sunlight. You can start working on your sleep first thing in the morning by making sure you are exposed to sunlight, which helps calibrate your body clock. “Get out and walk around,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “If you are going to take the subway, walk to a stop further than the one you usually take. You want to turn little habits into routines.”
  • Focus on winding down before bed. “You may want to take a hot shower,” Robins said. “If you can’t stop thinking about what’s coming tomorrow, write a list of things you need to do to get them out of your head.”

It’s important to develop rituals that your brain associates with falling asleep, Robbins said, adding that “it could be reading a book, having a happy thought or meditating.”

If you wake up during the night, go back to the same set of rituals that put you to sleep before, Robbins said.

If you can’t sleep, don’t stay in bed, Robbins said.

“You want to keep your bed as a place to sleep and sleep alone,” Robbins said. “If you’re tossing and turning, get out of bed. The bed should be the safe place to sleep.”

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