Losing sleep — higher risk of death for men?

Losing sleep – higher risk of death for men? (Thinkstock photo)
Losing sleep – higher risk of death for men? (Thinkstock photo)

Do you struggle to fall asleep, even though you’re very tired? If so, you could be suffering from insomnia, defined as the inability to get an adequate amount of sleep in order to feel refreshed the next day.

“In a fast-paced city like Singapore, people suffer from insomnia because of the stresses of daily living, such as work pressures, family conflicts, and financial difficulties. Some people might also have unrealistic expectations about sleep and become very worried if they can’t sleep for one or two nights. This, in turn, worsens sleeplessness,” says Dr Chan Herng Nieng, Consultant Psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Singapore General Hospital (SGH)..

Constant jet lag due to frequent business travel and shift work can also wreak havoc on sleeping patterns.

Related article: How shift workers and frequent travelers can avoid sleep problems

“Beyond these causes, the inability to sleep is also a common complaint of those suffering from psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance and alcohol misuse,” says Dr Chan. In other cases, insomnia may also be due to sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, periodic limp movement disorder and obstructive sleep apnoea.

While insomnia affects women more, recent research found that men who have trouble sleeping may have more to worry about.

According to the 2010 study done in the US, men with chronic insomnia were four times more likely to die early than men with healthy sleep patterns.

Dr Chan explains the findings: “Actually, this study did not conclusively state that men with chronic insomnia might die younger. It merely observed that insomniac men who slept less than six hours per night had a higher mortality rate compared to insomniac men who managed to catch more sleep.”

There were certain limitations to this study, says Dr Chan. For one, only one sleep study was carried out for each participant. “This is not actually reflective of each participant’s habitual sleep duration. Besides, the sleep study environment is different from the home environments of the participants.”

Also, the number of participants in the insomnia groups was very small compared to the non-insomnia groups. This means that any deaths in these small groups will contribute to a large effect when converted to percentages, which may not be a true effect.

Lastly, the study did not consider the possible association between hypnotic medications like sleeping pills and mortality, says Dr Chan.

Chronic insomnia and its health implications

Still, people who regularly sleep too little can suffer from long-lasting health consequences.

Related article: If you snore, does it mean you have a sleep disorder? Find out the surprising answer

Beyond daytime drowsiness – and nodding off at the wheel – prolonged sleep deprivation can in fact lead to serious health implications.

“In fact, insomnia is closely associated with some medical conditions,” says Dr Chan.

These conditions include:

  • Heart disease

  • Cancer

  • Neurologic disease

  • Breathing problems

  • Urinary problems

  • Chronic pain

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Poorly controlled high blood pressure

  • Poorly controlled diabetes

Sleep right, and tight

Most adults need between seven and nine hours of snooze time per night. But the majority clock in less than that.

To treat the problem, cognitive behavioural therapy may be effective. Dr Chan explains: “This therapy includes elements like sleep education and hygiene, stimulus control, relaxation training, as well as cognitive therapy. What it does is to guide you to understand sleep, recognise and make changes to certain mindsets and behaviours that affect your ability to sleep.”

For instance, good sleep hygiene is a crucial part of cognitive behavioural therapy. “Basically, sleep hygiene is a set of guidelines that one can follow to ensure peaceful, effective sleep. It is especially helpful in treating mild fatigue or insomnia,” says Dr Chan.

Related article: Will supper wreck your sleep? Read our 8 doctor-approved tips to get a good night’s sleep

If the insomnia persists despite better sleep hygiene, you may have to try other treatments. Dr Chan says: “This includes short-term use of medications, such as sleeping pills. At times, sedating anti-depressants may have to be prescribed.”

Public forum: Bothered by sleepless nights and other sleep-related problems? On Saturday, 19 October 2013, 2:00-4:30pm, SGH is holding a public forum in Mandarin that will address common sleeping problems such as insomnia, sleep walking and incessant dreams. Sign up by calling 9018-6554 during office hours. Entrance fee is $5/pax. Venue is at SGH Block 6, Level 9 Lecture Theatre.

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By Jaclyn Lim for HealthXchange.com.sg.

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