Sleep and Mortality Rates

Peter Dodzik, Psy.D., Managing Editor

I thought that the idea had run its course and I had really believed for a while that I would not have to answer questions about it again, but I was wrong. Last week a patient of mine asked me if I had seen the LATEST study suggesting that people who get too much of to little sleep have a shorter life span. He was also concerned about the study’s findings that patients who used prescription sleep aids lived fewer years than those who did not.

Unfortunately (and quite automatically) I found myself launching into a lecture about the age of the data from those studies and the methodological flaws in the research that was done. My patient was both surprised at my zeal and at least partially relieved. It was actually his suggestion that I make a broader appeal to reason in the face of some of this recent re-emergence of opinions on this topic. So I agreed.

In the 1960’s and late 1970’s the American Cancer Society conducted longitudinal research on the correlates of sleep complaints, sleep medications, insomnia and sleep duration on longevity. This 6-year study has become the backbone for most conversations about the relative implication of sleep problems on general health. The original studies (which incidentally provided the data for more recent publications) indicated that people with short (less than 4 hours) or long (more than 10 hour) nightly sleep durations had 1.5-2 times higher mortality rates than those people who slept 7-8 hours per night. The implication from the data is that sleeping too little or too much can be hazardous to your health.

First some background, like anything in life, people are wired differently, depending on whom you talk to, the average person sleeps 7-7.5 hours per night. However, the average range is 5.5 to 9 hours per night. This means that 68% of the people in the U.S. sleep between 5.5 and 9 hours per night and do not have higher mortality rates or sleep problems. However, people in the extreme cases, as noted above probably do have higher mortality rates, but not necessarily for the reasons noted. If you are regular readers of this periodical, you have no doubt seen many articles on the links between sleep disorders and ADHD, diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnea. These are only a few. The mortality rates for these groups are in fact higher than average in some cases and explain the increased mortality rates in extreme sleep deprivation and excess. In these cases, treatment of the medical condition
is paramount and leads to improved longevity.

Also, not noted is anxiety. My humble opinion on insomnia (which incidentally was not found to have higher mortality rates in these studies) is that most cases are caused by or exacerbated by anxiety. Stress (real or perceived) causes sleep problems. Our bodies and minds keep us aroused as a compensatory strategy to deal with stress and this leads to onset and maintenance insomnia. Stress and anxiety also lead to increased medical problems.