Lack of sleep increases risk of an early death, especially among diabetics

CHICAGO, Ill. — Do you regularly have trouble falling asleep or do you constantly wake up in the middle of the night? It’s a simple question for people with sleep issues, but researchers say the answer could mean the difference between life and death. A new study finds sleep disturbances, especially among diabetics, significantly increases a person’s risk of a premature death.

Previous studies have detailed how important sleep is for human health. A lack of sleep can lead to a weakened immune system, mood issues, and even poorer performance at school or work. Now, a team from Northwestern Medicine and the University of Surrey say it can also take years off your life.

Disturbingly, their findings reveal the impact of sleep deprivation in patients with diabetes is seven times greater than in the average person. While examining the effect of both diabetes and sleep problems, researchers discovered that those with both conditions were 87 percent more likely to die during a nine-year follow-up period. This includes all causes, from heart attacks to car accidents. For diabetics who did not have trouble sleeping, the blood sugar condition only increased their risk of death by 12 percent.

“If you don’t have diabetes, your sleep disturbances are still associated with an increased risk of dying, but it’s higher for those with diabetes,” says corresponding study author Kristen Knutson, associate professor of neurology (sleep medicine) and preventive medicine (epidemiology) at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a media release.

Diagnosing sleep issues early can save lives

Knutson says finding out whether someone can’t get to sleep at night or something keeps waking them up is a crucial part of addressing the potentially fatal problem of sleep deprivation.

“This simple question is a pretty easy one for a clinician to ask. You can even ask yourself,” Knutson explains. “But it’s a very broad question and there are a lot of reasons you might not be sleeping well. So it’s important to bring it up with your doctor so they can dive deeper. Is it just noise or light or something bigger, like insomnia or sleep apnea? Those are the more vulnerable patients in need of support, therapy and investigation into their disease.”

Researchers analyzed data on nearly 500,000 middle-aged participants from the UK Biobank Study. The international team believes this is the first report to look at the combination of sleep issues and diabetes and their impact on life expectancy.

“Although we already knew that there is a strong link between poor sleep and poor health, this illustrates the problem starkly,” adds first study author Malcolm von Schantz, professor of chronobiology at the University of Surrey. “The question asked when the participants enrolled does not necessarily distinguish between insomnia and other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. Still, from a practical point of view it doesn’t matter. Doctors should take sleep problems as seriously as other risk factors and work with their patients on reducing and mitigating their overall risk.”

The study appears in the Journal of Sleep Research.