Study Finds How Certain Sleeping Patterns Are Associated With Greater Disease Risk

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The evidence is undeniable: Poor sleep habits can be detrimental to our health. However, not all “bad” sleep is created equal, as some sleep patterns have a more pronounced connection to chronic health issues like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

A recent study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine explored the different impacts of sleep patterns by identifying four distinct sleeping styles and their associated health risks.

Researchers discovered that daytime nappers and individuals with insomnia were more prone to developing chronic health conditions compared to other types of sleepers. The study also highlighted factors such as age and employment status that increased the likelihood of certain sleep problems.

According to lead author Soomi Lee, PhD, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, these results remain consistent even after accounting for existing health conditions and factors such as education and income.

The finding suggest that public health efforts and interventions to reduce chronic disease should be tailored to different sleeping patterns rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, she adds.

Researchers Identified 4 Types of Sleepers

To gain a deeper understanding of various sleep patterns and their impact on long-term health, researchers analyzed data from around 3,700 adults participating in the “Midlife in the United States” study. They collected information at two points, 10 years apart, focusing on self-reported sleep habits as sleep regularity and duration, perceived sleep satisfaction, daytime alertness, and the number and types of chronic conditions.

The analysis identified four distinct sleep patterns:

  1. Good Sleepers: These individuals got enough sleep and reported sleep satisfaction without daytime sleepiness.
  2. Weekend Catch-Up Sleepers: This group had irregular sleep patterns, typically not getting enough rest during the week and compensating by sleeping more on weekends or non-workdays.
  3. Insomnia Sleepers: These people experienced short sleep duration, daytime tiredness, and took a long time to fall asleep.
  4. Nappers: These individuals generally had good sleep but took frequent daytime naps.

Specific Sleep Patterns Connected to Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer and Frailty

 Researchers then examined participants’ sleep patterns alongside data on age, employment status, education, and health over a 10-year period.

Key findings included:

  • More than half of the participants were identified as insomnia sleepers or nappers, both considered suboptimal sleep patterns.
  • Insomnia was linked to a significantly higher likelihood of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and frailty (characterized by weakness, slowness, exhaustion, and reduced activity levels).
  • Napping was also associated with a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, and frailty.
  • Weekend catch-up sleeping was not linked to any chronic conditions.
  • Although weekend catch-up sleepers did not show an association with chronic conditions, they were more likely to transition to nappers over time, according to Dr. Lee.
  • The study also found that individuals with less education and those without a job were more likely to suffer from insomnia, while older adults and retirees were more likely to be nappers. Additionally, sleep patterns tended to remain stable over the 10-year period, especially among those with insomnia or who were habitual nappers.

Findings May Inform Targeted Sleep Treatments and Interventions

A professor of medicine and sleep expert at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Ruth Benca, MD, who was not involved in the study says that these findings make sense given what scientists already know about sleep the risk of chronic health conditions.

She notes that while napping and weekend catch-up sleep (also known as social jet lag) aren’t always health concerns. However, insomnia definitely is.

She notes that while napping and weekend catch-up sleep (also known as social jet lag) aren’t always health concerns, insomnia definitely is. “Insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation, which is associated with negative health outcomes,” says Dr. Benca.

“The finding that people’s sleep type tends not to change was interesting; it was pretty stable over a 10-year period. That’s important because it suggests that personalized approaches targeted to the type of sleeper you are might be effective,” she says.

Napping: Is It Good or Bad for Your Health?

“I have patients ask me if it’s good or bad to take naps, and my answer is, ‘Yes,’” says Dr. Benca. And what she means is that the question of napping is complicated: Sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s harmful, she says.

Dr. Benca adds that in many cultures, napping is quite normal, and there’s even evidence that it can improve cognitive and athletic performance. “On the other hand, napping can also be a sign of underlying health conditions — for example, someone with sleep apnea may be excessively sleepy during the day and take naps,” says Dr. Benca.

She explains that the need to nap could indicated neurodegenerative conditions in older adults, as their circadian rhythms are less stable and they don’t sleep well at night.

“The other thing we know that is confirmed by this study is that older adults, particularly those who are retired, are more likely to take naps simply because they can,” adds Dr. Benca.

Neither Is Weekend Catch-Up Sleep Ideal

Dr. Benca observes that it’s quite common for individuals who experience insufficient sleep during the weekdays to compensate by sleeping longer on weekends. She notes that almost half of U.S. adults – about 46.5 percent – encounter one hour or more of social jet leg, a measurement taken between sleep and wake times on workdays versus free days.

She further explains that the problem arises from the fact that catching up on sleep during weekdays may lead to irregular sleep patterns and ongoing sleep deprivation throughout the week.

“That doesn’t mean that if you’re tired you shouldn’t sleep later on mornings when you are able to. But if you’re chronically sleep deprived, catching up for a day or two may not necessarily correct everything,” says Dr. Benca.

Meanwhile, she also shares that there is evidence that weekend catch-up sleep is linked to worse school performance, worse mood, and other difficulties in adolescents.

Behavioral Changes and Treatments Linked to Improved Sleep

Dr. Lee says that Sleep is an everyday behavior that can be changed or modified.

“So, if we can improve sleep almost every day, what outcomes might we see after several months, or even several years? Better sleeping habits can make many significant differences, from improving social relationships and work performance to promoting long-term healthy behaviors and healthy aging,” Dr. Lee says.

Dr. Benca adds that if behavioral changes cannot stop the insomnia issues, there are other treatments that may help. “The current recommended first-line treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a behavioral treatment that we know can be effective for most people who are able to do it,” she says.

However, the issue with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that there is a lack of trained therapists. “Although there are apps and versions people can do more independently, it may be harder for people — especially those with more severe problems — to adhere to the recommendations on their own,” Dr. Benca says.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for insomnia centers on investigating the relationship between our thoughts, actions, and sleep patterns.

Throughout the therapy sessions, the patient collaborates with the therapist to pinpoint thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that contribute to insomnia symptoms.

First Thing to Work On is Sleep Hygiene

Dr. Benca emphasizes that CBT differs from sleep hygiene, which refers to adopting healthy sleep practices like maintaining consistent sleep and wake times and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon. “Good sleep hygiene is important, and that’s the first thing to work on if you’re having sleep issues,” she says.

In addition, Dr. Benca says that there is also a variety of medications available on the market that can be used to treat insomnia, which may also have different effects on sleep and wakefulness.

“It’s a matter of working with your physician to figure out if a medication is the right thing for you and if so, which one,” she says.