Sleepless Nights Could Cost Years

A recent study by researchers at the Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine in Hershey, PA found that men who have insomnia are four times more likely to die when compared to men who reported sleeping well.

Scientists followed a group of 1,741 randomly-selected men and women in Central Pennsylvania and the results are giving baby boomers a new worry to keep them up at night. 

  • During the14-year period, men who slept less than 6 hours a night were four times more likely to die when compared to men who reported sleeping well.
  • The average age at the time of the study was 50 for men and 47 for the women.
  • Only 5 percent of the women died but the female findings are admittedly inconclusive since the sample size was smaller and they were only followed for 10 years.

Dr. Alexandros Vgontzas, is a sleep researcher with the Department of Psychiatry at Penn State and led the men's sleep study. He explained how the study was conducted in an interview on NPR in September.

"We divided the insomniacs based not only on how many hours they are asleep but the sleep was also measured objectively. Some people sleep less than they think they do; some sleep more," he explains. "In our study sleep duration was measured by brain wave activity in one night at the sleep lab."

Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, is associated with significant mortality in men. "These findings will increase the awareness among physicians and scientists that insomnia should be diagnosed early and treated appropriately," Vgontzas said.

Even when researchers adjusted for other factors that are known to affect life expectancy such as obesity, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and diabetes, lack of sleep still seemed to play a role in life expectancy.

Study co-author Edward Bixler said he hopes the findings will give the medical community reason to find better treatment for the problem. "Insomnia is not just a psychological problem but has significant physical consequences. It should be taken seriously by patients and physicians alike."

Insomnia becomes more prevalent as we age. One-third of adults experience periods of insomnia while 10 to 15 percent report chronic insomnia. Insomnia is not a disease but a symptom defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep or both.

If this condition lasts more than a month, the problem is considered chronic. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get an average of 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. If you find yourself sleepy during the day and/or have difficulty waking, it's possible you're not getting enough rest.

The study doesn't definitively prove that poor sleep will directly cause a man to die earlier since there could be other factors at play. Its been well documented for instance that not getting enough sleep on a regular basis puts individuals at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression, which affect mortality as well. Some evidence also suggests sleep problems may contribute to clogged arteries and disrupt the immune system. Vgontzas explains that insomnia can wear on people gradually, making them more likely to succumb to other ailments. "The main message here is that if you have insomnia, it is not a harmless thing," the researcher reports.

Here are nine easy ways to get more sleep.

NPR Interview with Dr. Alexandros Vgontzas (Department of Psychiatry, Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey) on Sept. 3, 2010

Interview with Dr. Sudhansu Chokroverty, MD, FRCP, FACP
Author of 100 Questions & Answers About Sleep and Sleep Disorders
Seton Hall University School of Health & Medical Sciences

Review of "Insomnia with Short Sleep Duration and Mortality: The Penn State Cohort" sent to me by sleep researcher Edward Bixler, Ph.D.
Alexandros N. Vgontzas, MD1; Duanping Liao, MD, PhD2; Slobodanka Pejovic, MD1; Susan Calhoun, PhD1; Maria Karataraki, PsyD1; Maria Basta, MD1; Julio Fernández-Mendoza, PhD1; Edward O. Bixler, PhD1
1Sleep Research and Treatment Center, Department of Psychiatry and 2Department of Public Health Sciences, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, PA