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Do you sleep soundly at night? Or do you experience sleep patterns that you would describe as fitful?
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say that disrupted night sleep leads to atherosclerosis—fatty arterial plaque buildup that can result in fatal heart disease.
Cardiovascular disease—the current top killer of Americans—claims, on average, 12,000 deaths each week.
The UC Berkeley study, published in the June 4 issue of PLOS Biology points a finger at poor sleep as a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Researchers believe their study is the first to associate sleep fragmentation, inflammation, and atherosclerosis in humans.
Senior study author Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience, says “We’ve discovered that fragmented sleep is associated with a unique pathway—chronic circulating inflammation throughout the bloodstream—which, in turn, is linked to higher amounts of plaques in coronary arteries.”
They used statistical modeling to analyze the diagnostic data of more than 1,600 middle-aged and older adults to achieve their findings.
In order to isolate sleep quality effect on heart health, the study considered age, ethnicity, gender, body mass index, sleep disorders blood pressure, and high-risk behaviors like smoking.
The research tracked the results by analyzing blood tests, calcium scores that can gauge plaque buildup and it also took different measures of sleep including wristwatch-accessed sleep for a week. Participants also spent a night in a sleep laboratory that measured their electrical brainwave signals.
While atherosclerosis often begins in early adulthood, it’s largely unnoticed until the plaque buildup in middle or old age suddenly blood flow to the heart, lungs, brain, and/or other organs. This is why it has earned the moniker “silent killer.”
Study co-lead author Vyoma Shah says, “The insidious nature of the disease requires that we pay attention to our sleep hygiene, even starting in early to midlife.”
They found that personal assessments of people’s sleep patterns were often unreliable, so they recommend the use of clinical-grade sleep trackers to get a more accurate picture.
“If you track your sleep patterns using objective measures, the same way you track your weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol, you can make modifications to your sleep habits, which could make a tangible difference to later life health outcomes,” says Shah.
It’s possible that fragmented sleep and chronic inflammation could also be linked to major depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers say these are new avenues they must explore.
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