Sleep or die -- growing body of research warns of heart attacks, strokes

Story highlights

  • Getting less than six hours of shut-eye a night has been associated with heart attacks, strokes, obesity and diabetes
  • The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says adults should get at least seven hours of sleep a night
  • Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea could have an even larger toll on your health

(CNN)We have all experienced the aftermath of a bad night's sleep: grogginess, irritability, difficulty carrying out even the simplest of tasks. A growing amount of research suggests that not getting enough shut-eye could also have insidious effects on heart disease, obesity and other conditions.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the largest physician-based organization for sleep medicine, recently put out their first recommendations for what is the right amount of sleep. It advises that adults get at least seven hours every night based on research on the link between inadequate sleep and a number of poor health outcomes.
Although most of us already know that we should get at least seven hours of sleep, a study last month suggested that Americans are creeping down to that cutoff. The average amount of sleep that they reported getting a night has dropped from 7.4 hours in 1985 to 7.29 hours in 1990 to 7.18 in 2004 and 2012.
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which requested and helped support the development of the current recommendations, has called not getting enough sleep a public health epidemic.
    For many aspects of health, "it was quite clear that seven to nine hours was good," said Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a professor of neurology at University of Washington. Watson led the panel of experts that wrote the recommendations. The group looked at more than 300 studies.
    Getting only six hours of sleep a night or less was associated with setbacks in performance, including mental alertness and driving ability, and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity, Watson said.
    There were not enough studies looking at the health of people who got between six and seven hours of sleep or more than nine hours to know how their health fared.
    The panel did not put an upper cutoff on the amount of sleep a person should get because, in addition to the lack of evidence, "there are instances where a person might sleep longer if they are recovering from a sleep debt or illness, and we had trouble coming up with a biological way that sleep would be bad for you," Watson said.
    Although there have been reports that sleeping nine hours or more a night is associated with increased risk of death, that link probably has more to do with the fact that the people who slept a lot had underlying illnesses that ultimately did them in, said James Gangwisch, a sleep researcher at Columbia University who helped develop the current recommendations.
    In addition, re