In a new study published in the European Heart Journal, researchers found a clear link between unconscious wakefulness during sleep and a higher risk of dying from diseases of the heart and blood vessels.
They tested 8001 men and women and found that women who experienced unconscious wakefulness had nearly double the risk of dying from heart disease.
The link was less clear in men, and their risk of heart death increased by over a quarter compared to the general male population.
The study is from Maastricht University. One author is Mathias Baumert.
Unconscious wakefulness, also known as cortical arousal, is a normal part of sleep.
It occurs spontaneously and is part of the body’s ability to respond to potentially dangerous situations, such as noise or breathing becoming obstructed. Pain, limb movements, trauma, temperature and light can also be triggers.
A common trigger for nocturnal arousals is obstructive sleep apnea when breathing stops and the arousal system ensures the activation of our body to change our sleep position and to reopen the upper airway.
Another cause of arousals can be ‘noise pollution’ during the night by, for example, night-time aircraft noise.
Depending on the strength of the arousal, a person might become consciously aware of the environment, but often that is not the case.
Typically, people will feel exhausted and tired in the morning because of their sleep fragmentation but will not be aware of the individual arousals.
In the study, the team looked at data from sleep monitors worn overnight by men and women The participants were followed up over a period of several years.
They found that women had an arousal burden that was lower than men.
However, those who had an arousal burden that accounted for more than 6.5% of their night’s sleep had a greater risk of dying from heart disease than women with a lower arousal burden.
Those with an arousal burden of more than 6.5% had a 12.8% risk of dying from heart disease, nearly double that of women of a similar age in the general population who had a risk of 6.7%.
The risk of dying from any cause was 21% among women in the general population, which increased to 31.5% among women in the two studies with an arousal burden of more than 6.5%.
Men with an arousal burden accounting for more than 8.5% of their night’s sleep had a 1.3 times greater risk of dying from heart disease.
The team says the triggers causing arousal or the body’s response to arousal may differ in women compared to men.
Women and men may have different compensatory mechanisms for coping with the detrimental effects of arousal.
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