For years the human heart has been symbolically linked with our inner person, our deepest feelings, and our most critical functions. These connections are no accident, for the heart truly is the engine that keeps alive all that we are and all that we hope to be. It can be easy to take the heart for granted, as it dutifully beats away behind the scenes, day after day. Often, it’s only when problems arise that this tireless worker gets the attention it deserves. Working to raise awareness and draw attention to this important organ is the designation of February as Heart Health Month.
There are many ways in which we can give positive attention to our heart. Diet and exercise are two powerful fundamentals on which good heart health rests, but one aspect of our daily life contains just as important a factor–sleep.
In a 2010 study published in the journal Sleep, researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine reviewed data from 30,397 people who had participated in the 2005 National Health Interview Study. They discovered that those sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night were at increased risk of heart disease. In particular, women under 60 who sleep 5 hours or less a night have twice the risk for developing heart disease.
There are many factors that can result in our missing out on the proper amount of sleep. One particularly insidious factor is sleep apnea. Individuals with sleep apnea can be in bed and “asleep” for 7, 8, even 9 hours and yet fail to get any real sleep. The reason for this is that their sleep is continually interrupted by apneas; events where their breathing is halted. This prohibits them from achieving the kind of deep, rejuvenating sleep that the body needs. It can also wreak havoc with blood pressure and other critical body functions that can adversely affect the heart.
Some telltale signs of sleep apnea are violent snoring accompanied with complete lapses in breathing, awakening headaches, and daytime fatigue. If sleep apnea is suspected, the best way to determine its presence is by means of a sleep study performed by a qualified professional.
While a diagnosis of sleep apnea can indeed be daunting, it should be considered a victory of the heart. It’s at this point that measures such as CPAP therapy can be introduced, and a potential threat to good heart health can be taken off the table. With all the stress and demands that we put our hearts, giving it a break by looking after it in such a way will undoubtedly pay off dividends for many Heart Health Months to come.