People who have spent a bad night without sleep sometimes refer to themselves as feeling “like death warmed over,” and the metaphor is meant to be somewhat amusing. But the joke has become a little less funny with news of the conclusions of a 40-year study that was recently wrapped up by researchers at the University of Arizona. The group found that if you consistently experience disrupted sleep at a rate of at least three nights per week over a period of six years, it creates a 58 percent increased risk of an early death. The findings showed that heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression were the chronic illnesses most frequently associated with prolonged insomnia. Many of these illnesses have been linked to increased levels of inflammation.
Insomnia is defined as having trouble with getting a good night’s sleep. It may involve difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, or an inability to sleep through the night. It has been estimated that over half of all Americans suffer from sleep problems at some point, with many of those falling prey to a number of sleep disorders that contribute to the problem.
The study itself looked at data that had been gathered over the course of the Tucson Epidemiological Study of Airway Obstructive Disease. This long running respiratory study was first begun in 1972, and followed subjects for a period of several decades. In analyzing the collected information, researchers determined that those who suffer from insomnia chronically rather than intermittently have a higher mortality risk. Their analysis also revealed higher levels of a blood biomarker called C-reactive protein which results in higher inflammatory levels in the body. Though there have been a number of studies that have indicated that insomnia can lead to early death, there have been none that provide a direct reason for why this is the case.
The lead author of the Arizona study was Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, who said, “An enhanced understanding of the association between persistence of insomnia and death would inform treatment of the at-risk population. We found that participants with persistent insomnia were at increased risk of dying due to heart and lung conditions independent of the effects of hypnotics, opportunity for sleep (as distinguished from sleep deprivation), sex, age and other known confounding factors.”
In addition to Dr. Parthasarathy’s comments, the senior author of the study had additional remarks. “Although there were higher levels of inflammation and steeper rises in inflammation in individuals with persistent insomnia when compared to those with intermittent or no insomnia, more research into other pathways by which persistent insomnia may lead to increased mortality needs to be explored.”
There is no doubt that more in-depth analysis of this study’s results and continued research into the topic will yield valuable information into which treatments may be most helpful in treating insomnia and thereby preventing premature deaths.