Sleep is not optional – A chat with director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders

In mid October sleep experts from around the world travelled to the 2018 Research Conference on Sleep and the Health of Women, which was held to bring awareness to the importance of sleep for the health of women. The goal of the meeting was to showcase the research advances in understanding health risks, societal burdens and treatment options for those with sleep deficiencies or disorders.

After attending the conference himself, Michael Twery, Ph.D., Director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR), speaks up on new research findings.

We asked Twery to share his experience at the conference as well as discuss the latest pressing research findings on sleep.

Q: What are some key biomedical research findings on sleep?

A: Science now shows that sleep is not optional. Sleep is essential to the health of nearly every organ including our hearts, lungs, immune system, and fat cells. Short sleep duration, irregular sleep schedules, and untreated sleep disorders (sleep deficiency) are associated with a growing number of health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is linked with many chronic diseases and conditions—such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression—that threaten our nation’s health. Not getting enough sleep can be a hurdle to doing the best on the job and increases the chance of accidents and motor vehicle crashes.

Q: How do sleep deficiencies affect the whole body?

A: Sleep deficiency and untreated sleep disorders interfere with how some genes and hormones work to protect our health. Researchers have linked these problems with many medical and mental health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, dementia, and certain cancers.

Q: Do you think people are now more receptive to changing their sleep habits in order to improve their overall well-being than they were 10 or 20 years ago?

A: Public interest in the problem is increasing. Hopefully, public awareness will follow suit, and lead to changes. People are beginning to understand how insufficient sleep affects their family, their careers, and home life. NIH’s medical research is helping people understand how important sleep is to their health.

Still, 20-30 percent of adults report insufficient sleep, in every state. And about 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems.

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Q: Are there studies showing differences between women and men when it comes to sleep disorders?

A: Sex differences in sleep begin at a very early age, and women report poorer sleep quality and have higher risk for insomnia than men do. Some of the differences that have been reported by scientists include:

  • Women are more likely than men to get injured working graveyard shifts.
  • Weekday sleep deprivation affects cognitive ability more in girls than in boys.
  • Women are just as likely to develop sleep disordered breathing as men after menopause.
  • Women with sleep apnea are at an increased risk for heart failure and death as compared with men.

Q: What are some of the most exciting advances you’ve seen in the field thus far, and where do you see the sleep research heading over the next decade?

A: The discovery of the genes in chemistry that regulate sleep was a huge discovery about how our internal clocks and biological rhythms – also known as circadian rhythms – govern our bodies. Three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2017 for this discovery.

With that scientific foundation, researchers are now evaluating how sleep deficiency may be contributing to serious public health problems such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.

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Q: What is the need to have a sleep conference of this magnitude? What is the goal of it?

A: Recent scientific advances in sleep research help us understand health risks, societal burdens, and treatment options associated with sleep deficiency and sleep disorders in women. This conference was another step in the process of translating research findings and discoveries into real world application. With the 2018 Research Conference on Sleep and the Health of Women, the National Institutes of Health are sounding a wakeup call throughout society about the importance of sleep for women, families, and society.

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