14/07/2013 17:57 BST | Updated 13/09/2013 06:12 BST

Is Poor Sleep the Forgotten Risk Factor?


We all know how a good night's sleep can do us wonders, and a late night of broken sleep can leave you feeling groggy, irritable and unproductive. But there's a lot more to be said about getting an early night than you may think.

As well as Andy Murray putting his success at Wimbledon down to 12 hours sleep a night, research has suggested that getting seven or more hours' sleep each night can increase the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and even protect your heart.

This isn't entirely a shock revelation. It's already well documented that poor sleep can have a profound effect on your health, such as elevating your blood pressure and putting you at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Not to mention the mental and cognitive effects a sleepless night can have. But this study is the first to look at whether sleep, added to the four other healthy lifestyle recommendations (being physically active, eating a healthy diet, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking) can further reduce that risk.

Researchers from the Netherlands studied over 14,000 men and women aged between 20 and 65 for more than a decade, and recorded how many people in the study died of heart problems, or had a heart attack or stroke (cardiovascular disease). They were asked about their diet, physical activity, and their drinking and smoking habits, as well as how much sleep they got each night.

After 12 years of observing and recording, 600 people developed heart disease or had a stroke, and 129 died. Those who ate healthily, exercised regularly, didn't smoke and drank in moderation significantly reduced their risk of heart problems, and even more so if they had seven or more hours sleep every night.

This study highlights that a shift is needed in how people view sleep and the importance of it. Huge amounts of money and time are put into campaigns surrounding healthy eating, not smoking and the harm that excessive drinking can cause. But I fail to see where 'sufficient' sleep is promoted enough, or at least on a scale that puts it in parallel with the other four lifestyle recommendations.

Looking at some specific figures from this study, all four behaviours were associated with a 67 percent lower risk of dying from stroke or heart disease. Adding 'sufficient' sleep (seven or more hours a night) to those lifestyle factors was associated with an 83 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Although the reliability of these results will be doubted due to the use of questionnaires throughout the study, these figures do indicate that good quality sleep can have a marked effect on your cardiovascular health. I certainly believe sleep is an overlooked risk factor for disease, especially as health campaigns don't tend to focus on the importance of sleep.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the world. We can all take steps to prevent it, such as eating more fruit and veg, and being as active as possible. But a good night's sleep on top could boost those benefits. It's certainly something we should all take seriously; and each of us can start this evening with an early night. Who's in?