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Published on February 12, 2018

Can too little sleep put you at risk for heart attack?

Getting less than six hours of sleep a night may double the odds of dying from heart attack or stroke, if you are among the estimated 34 percent of American adults who have metabolic syndrome, new research suggests.

You have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following risk factors, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Abdominal obesity (waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men and greater than 35 inches in women)
  • Triglyceride level of 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or greater
  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women
  • Blood pressure of 130/80 or greater
  • Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or greater

[RELATED: Download a free fact sheet about metabolic syndrome from the American Heart Association, here.]

Researchers followed 1,344 people for 17 years. Of these participants, 39 percent had metabolic syndrome. None had sleep apnea.

The study, reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, concluded that people with metabolic syndrome “showed a significantly higher crude mortality rate than those without metabolic syndrome (32.7 percent versus 15.1 percent).”

Lead researcher Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, a sleep psychologist at the Sleep Research and Treatment Center at Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, cautioned that the study didn’t prove that people with metabolic syndrome who get too little sleep will die from heart disease or stroke, only that an association may exist.

“This study supports what we already know: good sleep is important to good health,” said Mir F. Shuttari, MD, a Falmouth pulmonologist who is certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine.

“Humans are designed to have seven to eight hours of sleep at a time. Even one night of sleep deprivation can have some impacts,” he said, noting that too often, a good night’s sleep competes with electronics, long working hours or other stresses.

“You have to watch out for the cumulative effect. Some people don’t know they are sleep deprived,” he said. “You may be in bed the right amount of time, but not getting a refreshing quality of sleep.”

Are you getting enough sleep?

Dr. Shuttari outlined a few symptoms of sleep deprivation:

  • Fatigue
  • Mood alterations
  • Grabbing for coffee (or your favorite form of caffeine/stimulant) all day
  • Feeling frustrated quickly
  • Memory lapses
  • Taking longer than usual to accomplish simple tasks
  • Relying on an alarm clock each morning to wake you

If you find that you are sleep deprived, the first question to ask is, “How long has it been a problem?” he said.

“Ask yourself if this is a long- or short-term situation. If it goes beyond three months, we label it chronic insomnia or chronic sleep maintenance, and you should contact your physician,” he added.

Insomnia is the inability to sleep. People with chronic sleep maintenance can fall asleep, but have a tough time staying asleep.

Dr. Shuttari explained that short-term sleep deprivation is usually the result of life events such as a family illness or job-related concern. Once the life event is resolved, predictable sleep usually returns. If a patient experiences long-term sleep deprivation, he advises them to seek help by talking with their primary care physician, who will know if a referral to a psychologist, sleep lab or other resource is appropriate.

“Whether or not you have metabolic syndrome, this study and other research should encourage you to pay attention to your sleep. Ignoring symptoms of sleep deprivation can lead to other health risks,” Dr. Shuttari said.