Well-Being Prevention & Cures

At least five hours of sleep linked with lower health risks among seniors

“As people get older, their sleep habits and sleep structure change.”
Alarm clock

Story at a glance

  • Sleeping five hours or less per night can increase seniors’ risks of developing multiple chronic health conditions.

  • That’s according to new study findings that assessed data from a 25-year follow-up period.

  • Previous research has detailed the association between poor sleep and individual diseases, but less is known about its effects on multimorbidity. 

Sleeping under five hours a night was associated with a greater risk of chronic health problems among those aged 50 or older, according to results of a new study that tracked individuals’ health over 25 years. 

Findings were published in the journal Plos Medicine and reflected data from more than 7,000 participants in the Whitehall II study.

Individuals aged 50 years old who got five hours or less of sleep each night had a 20 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with a chronic disease. Over 25 years, these adults were 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with two or more chronic diseases (multimorbidity) compared with seniors who slept up to seven hours each night. 

No associations between health outcomes and sleeping for nine or more hours were seen among healthy individuals. 

Diseases included cancer, diabetes, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among others. For those with an existing chronic condition, sleeping longer was linked with a 35 percent higher risk of developing another condition. 

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Previous research has detailed an association between long and short sleep duration and the development of individual chronic diseases, authors said, but less is known about the relationship between sleep and multimorbidity. 

“Multimorbidity is on the rise in high income countries and more than half of older adults now have at least two chronic diseases,” said lead study author Severine Sabia of University College London in a release

“This is proving to be a major challenge for public health, as multimorbidity is associated with high health care service use, hospitalizations and disability.”

The Whitehall II study first began in 1985 and included more than 10,300 participants. Individuals self-reported their sleep duration six times between 1985 and 2016. The metrics were recorded at ages 50, 60 and 70. 

Shorter sleep duration at ages 60 and 70 was also associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases. Of the 7,217 participants without a chronic disease at age 50, 2,297 had tow or more conditions 25 years later. 

Adults aged 50 and older who slept five hours or less also saw a 25 percent increased risk of death over the follow-up period, but no link was found between sleep duration and mortality for adults with existing chronic diseases. 

“As people get older, their sleep habits and sleep structure change. However, it is recommended to sleep for 7 to 8 hours a night,” Sabia added. 

To ensure a better night’s sleep, adults can improve their sleep hygiene through practices like avoiding large meals before bedtime and making sure one’s bedroom is quiet and dark.

Poor sleep can increase inflammation and blood pressure, raising the risk for stroke or heart disease, while getting sufficient sleep allows the body to rest and recharge, researchers explained. 

Because all Whitehall II participants were employed by the U.K. civil service at the time of enrollment, authors caution they’re likely to be healthier than the general population.