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How 4 types of sleeping patterns may impact long-term health

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Research finds that sleeping habits can affect health differently in the long term. Studio Firma/Stocksy
  • Getting enough sleep is vital for a person’s overall health. 
  • Researchers from Pennsylvania State University say there are four different sleep patterns that people follow that can help predict a person’s long-term health. 
  • They found that insomnia sleepers were associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression over a 10-year period. 

Everyone knows that getting enough sleep every night is an important part of a person’s overall health.

Past studies show that lack of sleep can increase a person’s risk for several health conditions including cardiovascular disease Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , type 2 diabetes Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , obesity Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , depression Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , Alzheimer’s disease Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , and cancer Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source

While everyone needs sleep, that doesn’t mean that everyone sleeps the same. In fact,  researchers from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) say there are four different sleep patterns that people follow, and these patterns can help predict a person’s long-term health. 

The study was recently published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine

Why is sleep so important for health? 

According to Dr. Soomi Lee, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and lead author of this study, having a better understanding of how sleep affects our overall health is paramount because it allows us to target sleep as a modifiable factor for future prevention and intervention strategies. 

“Research, including our own findings, consistently links poor sleep to a myriad of adverse health outcomes, ranging from heightened risks of depression, chronic pain Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , cardiovascular diseases, to cognitive decline Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source ,” Dr. Lee told Medical News Today.

“Sleep, being a fundamental daily behavior, holds significant potential — if we enhance our sleep patterns on a daily basis, the cumulative effect on our health cannot be underestimated.” 
— Dr. Soomi Lee

A study published in May 2017 found that sleep disruptions have major adverse short- and long-term Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source health consequences. 

Research presented in July 2023 found adults who adopt eight healthy habits — with one being good sleep hygiene — by age 40 could live an average of 23 to 24 years longer than those who do not. 

4 specific sleep patterns

For this study, Dr. Lee and her team used data collected from about 3,700 participants of the Midlife in the United States study (MIDUS). Researchers had access to each participant’s sleep habits and chronic health details across two different time points 10 years apart. 

Through this data, scientists were able to identify four different sleep patterns: 

  • Good sleepers who have the best sleeping habits across all data points
  • Nappers who are mostly good sleepers, but take daytime naps frequently
  • Weekend catch-up sleepers who have irregular sleep on weekdays and slept longer on weekends and holidays
  • Insomnia sleepers who have sleeping issues such as taking a long time to fall asleep, short sleep durations, and increased tiredness during the day

Researchers reported more than half of the study participants fell into the insomnia sleepers or nappers groups. 

“The prevalence of suboptimal sleep patterns, particularly insomnia sleepers or nappers, among the majority of participants was indeed surprising,” Dr. Lee said.

“Our study sample consisted primarily of healthy adults from the MIDUS study, leading us to anticipate better sleep health patterns. However, the findings revealed a concerning prevalence of insomnia sleeper or napper patterns among participants, highlighting the importance of addressing sleep health even among ostensibly healthy populations,” he explained.  

Increased chronic disease risk for insomnia sleepers

Through the study’s findings, scientists discovered that those classified as insomnia sleepers had a significantly higher likelihood of developing chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression, over the 10 years. 

“It’s important to note that the identification of the insomnia sleeper phenotype was based on self-reported sleep characteristics rather than clinical diagnosis,” Dr. Lee said. “However, these characteristics closely align with clinical insomnia symptoms, including short sleep duration, high daytime tiredness, and prolonged sleep onset.” 

Dr. Lee said this has several implications.

“Firstly, individuals experiencing these symptoms should consult a healthcare professional for appropriate evaluation and treatment. Secondly, our findings revealed that being an insomnia sleeper at any point over the 10-year period significantly increased the likelihood of developing multiple chronic health conditions, with up to an 81% increase observed,” she detailed.

“Thirdly, insomnia sleepers exhibited a reduced likelihood of transitioning to other sleep patterns over the decade, suggesting a persistent challenge in returning to optimal sleep,” Dr. Lee continued.

“Lastly, the study identified associations between insomnia sleeper patterns and socioeconomic factors such as lower education levels and unemployment,” she added.

Further exploration needed

When asked what plans she has for continuing this research, Dr. Lee said her next steps involve advancing this research to increase awareness about the significance of sleep health. 

“With ample evidence linking better sleep health to positive health and aging outcomes, there’s a critical need for further exploration,” she continued.

“Specifically, I aim to delve into the antecedents of sleep health, investigating factors that contribute to maintaining optimal sleep patterns despite age-related declines. Understanding who maintains better sleep health and identifying protective factors against sleep disturbances will be central to shaping interventions aimed at promoting overall well-being,” she told Medical News Today.

Moving toward targeted treatments for sleep issues

MNT also spoke with Dr. Monique May, family physician and Aeroflow Sleep Advisory Board member, about this study.

Dr. May said her first reaction was that the findings, in regards to the insomnia sleepers, make sense intuitively.  

“I would expect the insomnia sleepers to have an increased risk for chronic disease because they are not getting good, quality sleep, which is important in regulating metabolism and performing restorative activities,” she explained.

“However, I was surprised that the nappers had an increased risk for chronic disease because they were described as getting ‘mostly good sleep but frequent daytime naps.’ Napping, when done correctly, can be very beneficial, but according to this study, we may need to rethink napping recommendations,” she added. 

Dr. May said it is important to have a better understanding of how sleep affects our overall health because it will allow doctors to offer improved and targeted treatments for people with sleep issues.  

“Having evidence upon which to base lifestyle recommendations is key. For example, being able to identify what type of sleeper someone is at various points in their life will enable physicians (to) direct recommendations and treatment that will have (a) greater chance of being successful,” she said. 

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

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