New research has found that young people who have more beneficial sleep habits are incrementally less likely to die early.

Moreover, the data suggest that about 8% of deaths from any cause could be attributed to poor sleep patterns.
The five key habits are:

  • seven or eight hours of sleep per night
  • difficulty falling asleep no more than twice a week
  • trouble staying asleep no more than twice a week
  • not using any sleep medication
  • feeling well rested when waking up at least five days a week

Life expectancy was 4.7 years greater for men and 2.4 years greater for women, who reported having all these five quality sleep measures, compared with those who had none or just one of the five favourable elements of low-risk sleep.

“If people have all these ideal sleep behaviour, they are likely to live longer,” said study co-author Frank Qian, MD at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“I think these findings emphasise that just getting enough hours of sleep isn’t sufficient,” said Dr Qian, a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. “You really have to have restful sleep and not have much trouble falling and staying asleep.”

The researchers looked at figures from more than 172,300 American adults, with an average age of 50, who participated in an annual health survey between 2013 and 2018. Participants were asked questions about sleep habits and were followed for an average of 4.3 years during which time more than 8,600 died. Of the deaths, 30 percent were from cardiovascular disease, 24 percent were from cancer and 46 percent were due to other causes.

Researchers assessed the five different factors of quality sleep using a low-risk sleep score they created based on answers collected as part of the survey. Each factor was assigned zero or one point for each, for a maximum of five points, which indicated the highest quality sleep.

Qian said this is the first study (to his knowledge) to use a nationally representative population to look at how several sleep behaviour, and not just sleep duration, might influence life expectancy.

The research team found that, compared to people who had zero to one favourable sleep factors, those who had all five were 30 percent less likely to die for any reason, 21 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, 19 percent less likely to die from cancer, and 40 percent less likely to die of causes other than heart disease or cancer.

He says more research is needed to determine why men with all five low-risk sleep factors had double the increase in life expectancy compared with women who had the same quality sleep.

“Even from a young age, if people can develop these good sleep habits of getting enough sleep, making sure they are sleeping without too many distractions and have good sleep hygiene overall, it can greatly benefit their overall long-term health.”

He explained that for the present analysis the team estimated gains in life expectancy starting at age 30, but the model can be used to predict gains at older ages too.

“It’s important for younger people to understand that a lot of health behaviour is cumulative over time. Just like we like to say, ‘it’s never too late to exercise or stop smoking,’ it’s also never too early. And we should be talking about and assessing sleep more often,” Quon said.

The researchers hope patients and physicians will start talking about sleep during doctor visits as part of their overall health assessment and disease management strategies.