Poor sleep quality named major risk factor for deadly heart condition

Poor sleep quality may prime you for a serious heart condition later in life, a new study warns. Researchers evaluated chronic sleep issues and their impact on heart health, finding that people who get unrestful sleep experience chronic inflammation that leads to the development of atherosclerosis. The condition, if not caught early and treated, can be deadly.

The study comes from the University of California – Berkeley, where researchers found that disrupted, fragmented sleep quality and plaque buildup in arteries are linked. The key linking the two is chronic circulating inflammation, according to the researchers, which increases the amount of plaque that builds up in the arteries.

Heart disease is the top killer in many countries; as a result, there is a large body of research exploring risk factors, potential preventative lifestyle changes, and treatment options. While heart disease prevention is popularly associated with improving one's diet, the new study finds that improving poor sleep quality is also vital to cardiovascular health.

Study lead author Raphael Vallat said, "To the best of our knowledge, these data are the first to associate sleep fragmentation, inflammation and atherosclerosis in humans."

Tapping heart data

The study involved data on around 1,600 adults pulled from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Using statistical modeling and controlling for things like sleep disorders and high-risk lifestyle factors, the researchers found that fragmented sleep, chronic inflammation, and increased arterial plaque buildup are 'clearly' linked.

The findings are important for public health, according to the researchers. Blocked arteries are known as a silent killer; it's hard to detect excessive plaque buildup until an artery is suddenly blocked and an emergency medical situation arises.

This plaque buildup process can start in early adulthood, particularly in those who are at higher risk. Many diet and lifestyle factors can increase one's odds of developing heart disease, including obesity, cigarette smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and more.

Detecting fragmented sleep

How do you tell whether your sleep quality is fragmented? There are multiple options; at the most extreme end, one is likely to know because they wake up multiple times a night. Less obvious are "micro" awakenings in which someone is pulled partly from sleep, but is not aware of this disruption. Sleep trackers are useful for monitoring for this issue, but only ones that are clinical grade; the average consumer sleep tracker may offer some insights, but is less accurate.

Many environmental issues can cause fragmented sleep, including a poor nighttime environment; adding white noise, earplugs, or adjusting the room climate may improve things. As well, conditions like sleep apnea can cause frequent micro-awakenings — in these cases, a sleep study can detect issues and offer treatment options. Past studies have also found that a consistent bedtime is important for health.