Irregular sleep may increase risk of cardiovascular events

March 02, 2020

Boston, MA -- The body's clock keeps metabolism, blood pressure and heart rate running on schedule. But when an irregular sleep pattern disrupts this delicate ticking, what happens? A new study led by investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital measured participants' sleep duration and timing, finding that over a five-year period, individuals who had the most irregular sleep experienced a two-fold increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those with the most regular sleep patterns. The team's findings are published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

"When we talk about interventions to prevent heart attacks and stroke, we focus on diet and exercise," said lead author Tianyi Huang, ScD, of the Brigham's Channing Division of Network Medicine. "Even when we talk about sleep, we tend to focus on duration -- how many hours a person sleeps each night -- but not on sleep irregularity and the impact of going to bed at different times or sleeping different amounts from night to night. Our study indicates that healthy sleep isn't just about quantity but also about variability, and that this can have an important effect on heart health."

Huang and colleagues examined data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a federally funded, prospective study that included 1,992 participants who did not have cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study. MESA consisted of a diverse study population made up of white (38 percent), African American (28 percent), Hispanic (22 percent) and Chinese American (12 percent) participants, aged 45-84 years, from six field centers across the U.S. Participants wore an activity tracker on their wrist for seven days that recorded their sleep, including bedtime, sleep duration and wake time. They were then followed for an average of 4.9 years. During that time, 111 participants experienced cardiovascular events, including heart attack, stroke and other adverse events.

The investigators divided participants into four groups ranging from those with the most irregular sleep patterns (two hours or more difference in sleep duration each night) and those with the most regular sleep patterns (less than an hour difference in sleep duration each night). They also compared those with the most consistent bedtimes (less than 30-minute difference each night) and most inconsistent bedtimes (90 minutes or more). The team found a two-fold increase in risk of cardiovascular events among those with the most irregular sleep patterns. The researchers estimate that for every 1,000 people following the most regular sleep pattern, only eight would have a cardiovascular event over one year; for every 1,000 people with the most irregular sleep patterns, 20 people would likely develop a cardiovascular event over one year.

While large for a study that uses wrist-worn activity trackers to measure sleep, the sample size for the study was modest and its follow-up time was relatively short, which meant that the researchers could not assess risk of individual adverse events such as a heart attack versus a stroke and the possibility of chance findings could not be fully excluded. If larger studies confirm these findings in the future, Huang would like to evaluate whether an intervention -- such as, sleeping longer or more regularly -- could decrease a person's risk.

"Sleep regularity is a modifiable behavior. In the future, we'd like to explore whether changing one's sleep patterns by going to bed consistently each night may reduce a person's risk of future cardiovascular events," said Huang.
This research was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (HHSN268201500003I, N01-HC-95159, N01-HC-95160, N01-HC-95161, N01-HC-95162, N01-HC-95163, N01-HC-95164, N01-HC-95165, N01-HC-95166, N01-HC-95167, N01-HC-95168, N01-HC-95169, K01HL143034, R35HL135818) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (grants UL1-TR-000040, UL1-TR-001079, and UL1-TR-001420). The MESA Sleep Study was supported by NHLBI grant HL56984. A co-author reports consulting fees from Jazz Pharmaceutical and Respircardia Inc., and grant support from Jazz Pharmaceutical unrelated to this work.

Paper cited: Huang, T et al. "Actigraphy-measured Sleep Regularity and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis" Journal of the American College of Cardiology DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.12.054

Brigham Health, a global leader in creating a healthier world, consists of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, the Brigham and Women's Physicians Organization and many related facilities and programs. With more than 1,000 inpatient beds, approximately 60,000 inpatient stays and 1.7 million outpatient encounters annually, Brigham Health's 1,200 physicians provide expert care in virtually every medical and surgical specialty to patients locally, regionally and around the world. An international leader in basic, clinical and translational research, Brigham Health has nearly 5,000 scientists, including physician-investigators, renowned biomedical researchers and faculty supported by over $700 million in funding. The Brigham's medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and now, with 19,000 employees, that rich history is the foundation for its commitment to research, innovation, and community. Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and dedicated to educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. For more information, resources, and to follow us on social media, please visit

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