Contact: Roger S. McIntyre
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Sleeping less than seven hours a night in youth and middle age changes the heart’s structure in a way known to cause heart attacks, strokes and death from all causes, suggests a pioneering new study of more than 31,000 healthy adults.The study appears in the January issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Short sleep already has been linked to high blood pressure and death from cardiovascular disease. But these findings come from older adults who are seriously ill or from autopsies. “We’re looking at an earlier stage and healthy younger adults, with the idea of prevention. We want to know how and why these problems begin,” says Roger S. McIntyre, MD, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at University of Toronto. He’s coauthor of the study with Jae-Hon Lee, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Korea University Ansan Hospital.
The study found that adults reporting they routinely sleep less than seven hours had significantly thicker walls in the left pumping chamber of their hearts. That’s dangerous, McIntyyre explains, even though the people involved, mostly in their mid-20s through 50s, had no medical history of heart disease. “These chambers pump bood through the arteries. As the walls get thicker, it’s harder and harder for blood to get through.” The resultant changes cause heart attacks, heart failure and strokes. The researchers controlled for blood pressure, because short sleep is known to raise it, but the remodeling of the heart stood out with an independent link to less sleep.
Our brains may interpret too little sleep as a threat from predators or infections because that’s what shortened sleep meant for our ancestors through millions of years, McIntyre speculates. And this threat signals our defensive immune and adrenal systems to turn on, which activates inflammation and heart damage.
“We’re in a digital, 24-hour society, and you may be working too much or up late on Facebook,” says McIntyre. “But if you don’t get enough sleep, this insidious, silent heart damage seems to be unfolding—even if you’re in the prime of life and appear healthy.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”