What Does Lack of Sleep Cause? Eventually, Death.

Your to-do list is 8 miles long. We get it. Ours are, too. Between work and family and all of the balls we juggle in life, we need to cut back somewhere. The most common “fat” of life is sleep. We think we’ll be okay shaving off an hour or two or three here and there – and we anticipate the grogginess, knowing we can keep it at bay with caffeine. But sacrificing sleep leads to much more than a little sluggishness. It can also have profound consequences on your health.

"I used to suggest that sleep is the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise," said neuroscience and psychology Prof. Matthew P. Walker, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. "But I don't agree with that anymore. Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health."

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny.” To get a sense of the breadth, consider this: a study published last year showed that just one week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night resulted in changes to more than 700 genes. Just one week!

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people that get less than 7 hours of sleep a night are:

    • 41% more likely to have a heart attack
    • 38% more likely to have coronary heart disease
    • 50% more likely to have a stroke
    • 40% more likely to have asthma
    • 83% more likely to have COPD
    • 4% more likely to have cancer
    • 40% more likely to have arthritis
    • 57% more likely to have depression
    • 50% more likely to have chronic kidney disease
    • 30% more likely to have diabetes
    • 24% more likely to be obese

In a worst-case scenario, lack of sleep will cause death.

Short-term lack of sleep (getting six or fewer hours of shut-eye a night) triples your risk of drowsy driving-related accidents, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s Drowsydriving.org. While not all accidents result in death, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that drowsy driving is involved in more than one in five fatal crashes on U.S. roads each year. And, consider this: if you drink and drive, your reflexes are delayed, but if you fall asleep at the wheel, you have no reflexes at all making fatal accidents far more likely.

Long-term lack of sleep increases your chance of death from any cause. In the “Whitehall II Study,” British researchers looked at how sleep patterns affected the mortality of more than 10,000 British civil servants over two decades. The results, published in 2007, showed that those who had cut their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night nearly doubled their risk of death from all causes. In particular, lack of sleep doubled the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

What does all of this evidence scream? If you’re not banking 7-9 hours of sleep a night, you’re paving a path to very bad health outcomes and possibly even an early grave. So, the next time you’re prioritizing things on your 8-mile-long to-do list, make sure sleep comes out on top.

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