Changing the conversation about health
Register for Alerts

Poor sleep can ‘increase risk of heart failure, coronary artery disease and strokes’

People who consistently struggle to sleep well could be at a higher risk of heart failure, strokes and coronary artery disease, according to new research.

Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden studied data on the sleep patterns of 1.3million people and found that those with long-term insomnia had a greater risk of developing stroke and cardiovascular diseases.

The Royal Society for Public Health estimates the average person gets around 6.8 hours a night, with the NHS recommending adults get eight hours for optimum health. 

Scientists in Sweden studied the sleep patterns of 1.3million people across Europe and found that those with genetic markers associated with insomnia had a higher risk of developing heart failure, strokes and coronary artery disease

The research, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, drew on four major recent studies in Europe, including the UK Biobank, and counted both healthy participants and those diagnosed with heart disease or who had previously had a stroke. 

The study examined 248 genetic markers – known as SNPs – that are considered contributing factors to insomnia and compared them against the likelihood of developing heart failure, ischemic stroke, CAD and atrial fibrillation. 

READ THE FULL REPORT: Genetic Liability to Insomnia and Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Those considered at a genetic risk of insomnia were found to have an increased risk of heart attacks by 13 per cent, strokes by seven per cent and heart failure by 16 per cent.

Adjustments including for smoking and depression, which have been found to have genetic ties to insomnia, didn’t impact the results.

Dr Susanna Larsson, lead researcher, said consistent poor sleep could cause a heightened sympathetic nervous system, which stirs the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

The response increases heart rate, blood pressure and muscle contractions, which can be detrimental to heart health over time and increase the risk of stroke.

Dr Larsson said: “It’s important to identify the underlying reason for insomnia and treat it. Sleep is a behavior that can be changed by new habits and stress management.” 

Despite recent studies suggesting that sleep disorders could lead to a higher risk of heart-related conditions, it is unclear if it is a genetic link or the actual lack of sleep that causes potentially life-threatening problems.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation: “If this connection is proven in further research, it could pave the way for more precise ways of lowering the risk of heart disease in people who suffer from insomnia.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said of the research: “People who suffer from insomnia or disturbed sleep are often at increased risk of coronary heart disease – the leading cause of a heart attack. But it’s hard to know whether there’s a direct connection or if this is down to other behaviours that are common among people who struggle to sleep, such as a poor diet or living with high blood pressure.

“This study suggests that people whose genetic makeup predisposes them to insomnia also have a slightly increased risk of coronary heart disease. If this connection is proven in further research, it could pave the way for more precise ways of lowering the risk of heart disease in people who suffer from insomnia.”

COLLEGE OF MEDICINE’S SELF CARE TOOLKIT: RESEARCH ADVICE ON SLEEP PROBLEMS

Karolinska Institutet, Sweden