6 Hours Of Sleep Or Less & Chronic Disease Make A Deadly Combo, New Study Finds

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

6 Hours Of Sleep Or Less & Chronic Disease Make A Deadly Combo, New Study Finds

Image by Aleksandra Kovac / Stocksy

Study after study has shown that we need sleep more than we need a lot of other things—some experts even say it's worth skipping your workout to sleep. But if you aren't yet convinced that you should prioritize your zzz's, this latest discovery might sway you: Sleeping less than six hours could mean life or death.

A report from the American Heart Association says that middle-aged adults who have high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or have had a stroke increase their risk of cancer and early death when they sleep less than six hours a day. 

"Our study suggests that achieving normal sleep may be protective for some people with these health conditions and risks," said lead study author Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, Ph.D., associate professor at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine and sleep psychologist at the Penn State Sleep Research and Treatment Center.

The research in question looked at more than 1,600 adults ages 20 to 74 years old and tracked their health and cause of death for 20 years. These were the results, taken directly from the report: 

  • Of the 512 participants who passed away, one-third died of heart disease or stroke, and one-fourth died of cancer
  • People who had high blood pressure or diabetes and slept less than six hours had twice the increased risk of dying from heart disease or stroke.
  • People who had heart disease or stroke and slept less than six hours had three times the increased risk of dying from cancer.
  • The increased risk of early death for people with high blood pressure or diabetes was negligible if they slept for more than six hours.

Given that about 45% of Americans have stage 2 high blood pressure and/or diabetes (and another 14% have heart disease or stroke), it's reasonable to say that lack of sleep has the potential to affect millions of people (about 192 million, if you add the numbers). 

Now, if you're someone who is skimping on sleep, chances are there's a reason. If you're neglecting your sleep for reasons within your control—aka you can change your circumstances—consider this a call to action: Sleep deprivation has been linked to poor cognitive function and mental health, as well as impaired judgment, mood, and memory. Pair that with these findings of disease risk, and you have more justification than ever to hit the hay earlier and for longer.

"I'd like to see policy changes so that sleep consultations and sleep studies become a more integral part of our health care systems,” Fernandez-Mendoza said. "Better identification of people with specific sleep issues would potentially lead to improved prevention, more complete treatment approaches, better long-term outcomes and less health care usage."

Here's to hoping the health care system will catch up and start giving sleep the attention it deserves. Rest easy!

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