A review of previous studies shows that insomnia may not increase your risk of dying, but other sleep experts disagree with the findings.
The last thing people with insomnia need is something else to think about while worrying if sleep will come tonight.
If this describes you, you might want to read this earlier in the day.
A new study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews suggests that insomnia doesn’t increase your risk of dying. But some sleep experts disagree with the findings.
Researchers pooled data from 17 previous studies, in a meta-analysis. Together, the studies covered almost 37 million people — about 10 percent of them had insomnia.
The studies followed people between 2.2 and 28 years, with an average follow-up of 11.6 years.
Researchers found that the risk of dying during the study period was similar for people with and without symptoms of insomnia.
One study, though, accounted for 96 percent of the data. When researchers excluded this study, the mortality risk was slightly higher for people with insomnia.
The results were similar even when researchers took into account other factors such as alcohol use, smoking, obesity, and sleep medications.
Insomnia may lead to early death
Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, a sleep specialist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, is the co-author of one of the studies that was included in the meta-analysis.
He said he didn’t think the analysis was a “fair representation” of data from his 2015 study in The American Journal of Medicine.
That study found that people with persistent insomnia — six or more years — had an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular or lung disease, or from any cause, compared to people without insomnia.
The study included 1,409 people and followed them for 20 years.
Unlike the meta-analysis, Parthasarathy’s study looked at how long people in the study lived, what’s known as a survivorship or time-to-event analysis. The event in this case is death.
This approach is commonly used in cancer studies, where two treatments may benefit a similar number of people, but one treatment may help people live longer.
If this had been included in the meta-analysis, it may have given different results.
“If they took into consideration the time-to-event aspect in their meta-analysis,” said Parthasarathy, “they would have found that persistent insomnia hastened death — caused premature death — even in fully adjusted models.”
Parthasarathy also pointed out that even in the persistent insomnia group, some people may be affected less by sleep loss. It’s the same way one person might function fine after pulling an all-nighter, while another might struggle to get through the next day.
Other researchers have examined this kind of variation in how people respond to sleep loss, although they aren’t certain what’s behind it.
Psychological component of insomnia
According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia involves having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep.
This can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It can also impact your alertness during the day and quality of life.
But insomnia is not the same as short sleep — getting less than six hours a night — which is linked to an increased risk of death.
Some people with insomnia may even be getting a decent amount of sleep.
Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep specialist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, said “insomnia includes a psychological layer on top of sleeplessness.”
Most people have had difficulty sleeping at some point in their life, such as after working late on a project at work, after a fight with a spouse or partner, or on Christmas Eve as a child.
This is what Winter calls “simple insomnia” — a night or two of sleeplessness — in his book, “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It.“
If sleeplessness continues, it can turn into persistent — or “hard” — insomnia. With persistent insomnia, people may be anxious about getting to sleep or not sleeping enough.
Sometimes, even a news story about the link between insomnia and the risk of dying can fuel these worries.
He said people with insomnia may also have perceptions of sleep that are “very skewed from reality.”
One woman came to his clinic and said that she hadn’t slept in nine months, which is physically impossible. For her, though, that’s exactly what it feels like.
Winter said the goal of treatments for insomnia is to help people “get to a place where they feel like they can fall asleep, and where they’re not bringing so much angst and fear to bed every night.”
One technique is cognitive behavioral therapy, which Winter describes as “examining how we think about sleep and looking at the sleep practices we have when we go to bed at night.”
He suggests that you be proactive in looking for the causes of your sleeplessness and finding ways to make them go away.
And if the tricks you are using to get to sleep — new mattress, comfy pajamas, or sleep gadgets and apps — aren’t working, it might be time to talk to a sleep specialist.
“These problems are usually pretty easily dealt with if you’re in the right hands,” said Winter. “So don’t suffer needlessly.”