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10 Frightening Costs of Sleep Loss

Low sleep has a startling effect on every aspect of long-term health.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that 30 percent of American workers get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night, it's fair to say that lack of sleep has become a pervasive problem in the United States. But while it's common knowledge that sleep loss can have a significant impact on our current health and well-being, recent research finds that its implications for our future selves are even more frightening.

Sleep deprivation has been associated with immediate, increased risk for industrial accidents, motor vehicle accidents, medical errors, reduced productivity, impaired problem-solving skills, and increased stress, to name only a few. And researchers have now shown that what we do to our minds and bodies when we skimp on sleep doesn't just impact us in the short-term. Indeed, the consequences are long-term—and potentially deadly:

1. Accelerated Skin Aging

In 2013, researchers at University Hospitals Case Medical Center discovered evidence to connect sleep inadequacy with premature aging. Sixty premenopausal women (ages 30 to 49) were studied and half were determined to have poor quality sleep, based on their average amount of sleep and responses to a questionnaire assessing sleep quality. While researchers found no significant difference between the groups with respect to signs of extrinsic aging (i.e., deep wrinkles and freckles primarily attributable to sun exposure), they did find a significant difference with respect to signs of intrinsic aging (i.e., fine lines, uneven pigmentation, slackening of skin, and reduced elasticity). (Learn more here.)

2. Brain Damage

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers recently announced the discovery of "disturbing evidence that chronic sleep loss may be more serious than previously thought and may even lead to irreversible physical damage to and loss of brain cells." Sigrid Veasey and colleagues studied mice put on a sleep schedule similar to shift workers and discovered a connection between sleep deprivation and injury and damage to neurons associated with alertness and cognition.

"This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons," Veasey said in a statement. "While more research will be needed to settle these questions, the present study provides another confirmation of a rapidly growing scientific consensus: Sleep is more important than was previously believed."

3. Genetic Changes

In 2013, researchers discovered that just one week of inadequate sleep resulted in more than 700 gene changes, including in genes that influence our immune and stress responses. While the subject pool was small (26 participants), the results suggest that long-term sleep loss may negatively affect us at a molecular level, which might eventually help us better understand the role that sleep loss plays in conditions like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and hypertension.

4. Increased Risk of Stroke

In 2012, researchers for the first time uncovered a connection between sleep loss and stroke, particularly in those who had no other risk factors for stroke. "People know how important diet and exercise are in preventing strokes," lead researcher Megan Ruiter told USA Today. "The public is less aware of the impact of insufficient amounts of sleep. Sleep is important—the body is stressed when it doesn't get the right amount."

5. Decreased Bone Density

A 2012 study published in Experimental Biology and Medicine found that chronically sleep-deprived rats had decreased bone density consistent with osteoporosis. "If true in humans, and I expect that it may be, this work will have great impact on our understanding of the impact of sleep deprivation on osteoporosis and inability to repair bone damage as we age," the journal's editor, Steven Goodman, said in a statement.

6. Increased Risk of Obesity

In 2011, Guglielmo Beccuti and Silvana Pannain published a review article in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care revealing that longitudinal and prospective epidemiological studies collectively found a significant connection between chronic sleep loss and increased risk for obesity. "Sleep restriction leads to hormonal alterations, which may favor an increase in calorie intake and a decreased energy expenditure and ultimately lead to weight gain," the authors concluded.

7. Increased Risk for Heart Disease

In 2011, Warwick Medical School researchers reported finding not only an increased risk for stroke, but an increased risk for heart attacks and heart disease due to sleep loss. The team followed results from over 450,000 subjects spanning eight countries and discovered that people who got less than six hours of sleep each night and had disrupted sleep patterns stood a 48 percent greater chance of developing or dying from heart disease. "There is an expectation in today's society to fit more into our lives," one researcher, Francisco Cappuccio, noted. "The whole work/life balance struggle is causing too many of us to trade in precious sleeping time to ensure we complete all the jobs we believe are expected of us. But in doing so, we are significantly increasing the risk of suffering a stroke or developing cardiovascular disease resulting in, for example, heart attacks."

8. Increased Risk for Cancer

A 2010 study in Cancer that found that people who get less than six hours of sleep per night are at increased risk for colorectal polyps which can develop into cancer. A study out of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine found a connection between sleep loss and aggressive breast cancer tumors in women already suffering from breast cancer—and patients who slept less than 6 hours per night had higher scores of tumor recurrence. Another study published in Cancer reported that sleep-deprived males are 60 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer as those who are not sleep-deprived. (Learn more here.)

9. Forced Early Retirement

In a recent longitudinal cohort study of more than 1,500 Wisconsin state employees, researchers discovered that midlife insomnia increased the likelihood of early retirement due to poor health or disability. Dr. Lauren Hale at Stony Brook University in New York and her colleagues analyzed the data collected from a cohort of blue- and white-collar workers from midlife on. They discovered that 41 percent of the subjects reported symptoms of insomnia beginning around age 50—and as of 2013, about 66 percent of this cohort had retired. Hale reported that insomnia was the factor most significantly associated with retirement due to poor health or disability. In fact, those subjects who reported three or four symptoms of insomnia during midlife were twice as likely to retire due to poor health than those who did not. (Learn more here.)

10. Premature Death

Finally, following up on past research suggesting a connection between less sleep and mortality, Penn State researchers studied more than 1,700 men and women and discovered that men who got less than six hours of sleep per night were significantly more likely to die than those who slept more—even when accounting for variables such as weight, alcohol and tobacco use, diabetes, and hypertension. (Women in this study were not found to be at higher risk; the authors recommended a larger study with a longer follow-up period to better understand women's risk for death as it relates to insomnia.)

Overall, however, the authors conclude that given the high prevalence of insomnia in our society and "the widespread misconception that this is a disorder of the 'worried well,' its diagnosis and appropriate treatment should become the target of public health policy."

Any Good News?

The good news is that for many of us, the amount of sleep we get is a choice we make. We have just one more thing that we want to take care of before we hit the bed, or one more email that we think we have to respond to, or one more... something or other. Hopefully, this article will make you rethink the mentality so many of us have developed and replace it with a healthier mantra for our future selves: One more hour of sleep can...

  • keep me in the workforce until I decide I'm ready to retire.
  • keep me looking and feeling years younger.
  • keep my brain neurons alive and thriving.
  • help me keep my weight down.
  • keep me healthy.
  • ... and hopefully, add years to my life.

For those interested in ways to help you get good sleep, check out 5 Strategies to Ensure a Great Night's Sleep.

Happy dreaming!

© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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