By Kristy Smorol
When was the last time you actually felt rested? Women lead busy, stressful lives and sometimes a good night’s sleep seems like the thing we can give up to make room for something else. However, according to the American Heart Association, that rest is vital to your cardiovascular health. It’s so important that the association updated its scoring system for heart and brain health, adding sleep to create “Life’s Essential 8.”
“The new metric of sleep duration reflects the latest research findings: sleep impacts overall health, and people who have healthier sleep patterns manage health factors such as weight, blood pressure or risk for Type 2 diabetes more effectively,” Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, Sc.M., FAHA, and immediate past president of the American Heart Association. “In addition, advances in ways to measure sleep, such as with wearable devices, now offer people the ability to reliably and routinely monitor their sleep habits at home.”
Sleep can help your body heal and repair cells and tissues, strengthen your immune system, improve your mood and energy, and help brain functions like decision-making and focus. Poor sleep may put you at risk for cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, depression, obesity, and more.
Studies show too little or too much sleep can be associated with heart disease. Adults should aim for an average of 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Babies and children need more depending on their age. Ages 5 and younger should get 10-16 hours per 24 hours, kids 6-12 years should get 9-12 hours, and teenagers should get 8-10 hours of sleep.
The good news is, there are ways to clean up your sleep hygiene and catch more Zzzzs. You can start with some tech tweaks. Charge your phone far away from your bed to help cut back on distractions. Before bed, try to put down your devices as you wrap up for the night, or at least dim the screen or use a red filter app. The bright blue light coming from your screen can impact your body’s daily rhythms. Put your phone on “do not disturb” overnight so those notifications won’t keep waking you up.
Adults can benefit from bedtime routines just like babies and toddlers. Set an alarm to remind you to go to bed at a regular time every night. Spend a few minutes preparing for the next day, like writing a to-do list or setting out clothes. This can help ease a racing mind as you try to fall asleep.
In the morning, try to avoid hitting the snooze button. That extra few minutes may leave you feeling groggier when you wake up for the second time. Get out of bed and move your body to help yourself wake up and even sleep better the next night.
It may be tempting, but holding out for extra sleep on the weekend doesn’t work. A study in 2017 showed women who spent two or more hours catching up on sleep over the weekend were more likely to have poor cardiovascular health. That means we can’t repay our sleep debt, or the hours of sleep we’re not getting during the week, when we have extra time on the weekend. Try to stick with a regular bedtime and wake up time even on the weekends.
If stress is keeping you awake, you’re not alone. There is a strong connection between sleep, mental health, and overall physical health. Some of the other lifestyle factors included in Life’s Essential 8, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can directly reduce your risk of heart disease and help you sleep better, which could reduce your risk even more.
Life’s Essential 8 is a common way for doctors and patients to rate and discuss a patient’s heart and brain health, as well as being a key research tool. Sleep duration joined the original seven modifiable risk metrics – maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, being physically active, eating a healthy diet, and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Sleep can also impact those other seven metrics.
Other new elements in the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 update include accounting for secondhand smoke and vaping instead of just traditional cigarette use, using non-HDL cholesterol instead of total cholesterol to measure blood lipids, and expanding the blood sugar measure to include hemoglobin A1c, a key measure to assess Type 2 diabetes risk.
There are factors outside Life’s Essential 8 that can greatly impact your physical health. Mental health and the conditions in which you are born and live can also play a role. Life’s Essential 8 can provide some guidance on the risk factors we have some control over.
“The idea of optimal cardiovascular health is important because it gives people positive goals to work toward at any stage of life,” said Lloyd-Jones.
You can learn more about Life’s Essential 8 and get your heart health score at www.heart.org/lifes8.
Editor’s note: Kristy Smorol is the communications director for the American Heart Association of Central and Western New York.