In recent years, the crucial role sleep plays in our mental and physical health has been underscored by research. It’s hard to deny that quality rest can have a positive outcome on your well-being.
This especially holds true when it comes to proper sleep and our cardiovascular health: A recent study published in the journal Neurology found there may be a correlation between chronic sleep loss and strokes. Researchers looked at data from 31,126 people over the course of 18 years and discovered that those with insomnia symptoms were at higher risk for the health issue.
The study showed that the more insomnia symptoms someone had, the higher their risk. Specifically, those who reported five to eight insomnia symptoms had a 51% higher chance of stroke when compared to people with no insomnia signs, according to Medical News Today.
Participants self-reported their symptoms, including waking up too early, getting sleep that felt nonrestorative and having difficulty staying asleep and falling asleep. The research volunteers did not have a history of stroke at the start of the study.
“There’s a lot of data already kind of demonstrating the relationship between sleep and stroke risk — not getting enough sleep, and in fact, actually getting too much sleep. Both can increase your risk of future cardiovascular and stroke events,” Dr. Hardik Amin, a stroke specialist at Yale Medicine in Connecticut who is not affiliated with the study, told HuffPost.
Sleep deprivation and insomnia are linked to a higher risk of stroke risk factors like hypertension, diabetes and obesity, Amin added.
“People who have insomnia will have interrupted circadian rhythms that can lead to higher blood pressure overnight while they sleep. Normally, someone who’s getting normal, healthy sleep, their blood pressure should drop while they sleep,” he said, adding that people who don’t sleep well at night have the opposite happen.
“People whose blood pressure doesn’t dip at night ... those patients we know are at higher risk of cardiovascular events,” Amin said.
While there is a good level of understanding about the link between heart health and sleep, all of the details are not totally known, which makes studies like this one illuminating for medical experts. Here’s what else to know from the research and how best to protect yourself:
People under 50 with insomnia had a higher risk of stroke than those over 50.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the instances of stroke weren’t correlated with the oldest people in the study.
“One of the most interesting findings that they found was that association between insomnia and stroke risk was actually strongest in their patient group that was younger than 50, as opposed to patients that were older than 50,” Amin said.
This study helps improve the understanding of stroke in younger folks, Amin added.
“Younger patients traditionally shouldn’t be having strokes, and they tend to have strokes for less conventional reasons like clotting conditions or maybe trauma, things like that,” Amin said. “But this study really helps broaden our understanding that there are maybe hidden things under the surface that we don’t always discuss in younger patients that may also be going on.”
Additionally, Dr. Martha Robinson, an assistant professor in neurosurgery at Tulane University’s School of Medicine in New Orleans, pointed out that older people have more traditional stroke risk factors — like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes — and old age is a risk factor in itself. This all could mean that it was easier to identify insomnia as a risk factor for stroke in participants who were under 50, Robinson said.
But Amin stressed that it’s also important to understand that there is not necessarily a direct line between insomnia and stroke. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Instead, insomnia in younger patients may also imply that there are other health issues occurring, either on their own or potentially because of the insomnia. These health risks can then put someone at an increased risk for stroke.
“So, what this study found was that when you look at patients who have insomnia, they [also] tend to have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity and heart disease. And then those patients are at higher risk of stroke,” Amin said. “It’s kind of a stepwise thing that occurs. ... Whether insomnia itself directly increases stroke risk in an otherwise healthy patient, I think that’s a different question, and I don’t think that there’s evidence for that just yet.”
The research is further evidence that your sleep matters.
When it comes to your health, you’re probably worried more about your physical health — like back pain, joint issues or skin rashes — than your sleep hygiene. But this study shows you should really consider your sleep health too.
If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or getting enough sleep each night, you should talk to your doctor.
“I think what this study really should tell [people] is not to be shy about discussing sleeping problems with their doctor,” Amin said. “In my experience, patients are very hesitant to bring up sleeping-related issues.”
He noted that folks often dismiss their sleep issues and let other health worries rise to the top of the list.
“It’s an often overlooked subject, but treating sleeping disorders can have a dramatic impact on not only a patient’s day-to-day function in terms of their energy, their cognitive function, their mood, but obviously as this study also shows, it could have a dramatic impact on their future overall health and stroke risk as well,” Amin said.
Beyond any sleep concerns, Robinson said it’s important to be in touch with a primary care doctor, who can keep track of your health history and screen you for stroke risk factors like high cholesterol and diabetes.
And if you do have any stroke symptoms, you should get immediate help. According to Robinson, signs of stroke include numbness and tingling on one side of the body, weakness on one side of the body, slurred speech, trouble seeing, balance problems or facial drooping. These mean you should immediately call 911.
“If someone makes it to the hospital really quickly, there’s more options for reversing it,” Robinson said.