Excessive Sleepiness Linked to Heart Disease, Cancer, Diabetes

Megan Brooks

March 11, 2020

TORONTO, Ontario — Hypersomnolence, or excessive daytime sleepiness, in older adults is a risk factor for developing several serious medical conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, new research suggests.

A study of almost 11,000 participants shows those who reported excessive sleepiness were twice as likely as their nonsleepy counterparts to develop these conditions. Hypersomnolence was also linked to development of musculoskeletal and connective tissue conditions.

"Paying attention to sleepiness in older adults could help doctors predict and prevent future medical conditions," study investigator Maurice M. Ohayon, MD, PhD, Stanford University, California, said in a news release.

The findings were released in advance of a scheduled presentation in April at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 2020 Annual Meeting.

Early Warning Sign

Prior research has suggested an association between hypersomnolence and several psychiatric disorders, as well as cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. However, its role in the development of other medical conditions is not as well studied.

The current investigation included 10,930 adults who were interviewed by phone on two separate occasions 3 years apart. At the second interview, 3701 participants were at least 65 years old and 59% were women.

About 23% of the elderly participants reported hypersomnolence in the first interview and 24% reported it in the second interview. Of these individuals, 41% said during the first and second interviews that excessive daytime sleepiness was a chronic problem.

After adjusting for gender and obstructive sleep apnea status, participants who reported hypersomnolence in the first interview had more than a twofold greater risk of developing diabetes (relative risk [RR], 2.3; 95% CI, 1.5 - 3.4) or hypertension (RR, 2.3; 95% CI, 1.5 - 3.4) 3 years later than those who did not report this problem. They were also twice as likely to develop cancer (RR, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.1 - 3.8).

Of the 840 participants who reported hypersomnolence at the first interview, 52 (6.2%) developed diabetes compared with 74 (2.9%) who did not have excessive daytime sleepiness. Twenty (2.4%) individuals who reported hypersomnolence developed cancer compared with 21 (0.8%) who did not have it.

Chronic hypersomnolence was associated with a greater than twofold increased risk of developing heart disease (RR, 2.5; 95% CI, 1.8 - 3.4).

Those who reported hypersomnolence at the second interview were also 50% more likely to have diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue, such as arthritis, tendinitis, and lupus, than their peers who did not have excessive daytime sleepiness.

The findings suggest that hypersomnolence in the elderly "can be an early sign of a developing medical condition," the investigators write.

A limitation of the study is that it relied on participants' memories rather than monitoring their sleep length and quality and daytime sleepiness in a sleep clinic, they note.

Sleep as a Vital Sign?

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Harly Greenberg, MD, medical director at the Northwell Health Sleep Disorders Center, New York City, called the study "informative."

However, because the findings were associations, "the study does not necessarily indicate that hypersomnolence itself is causal for these conditions. Rather excessive sleepiness may be a marker of sleep disorders that can cause sleepiness as well as contribute to the risk of these medical conditions," said Greenberg, who was not involved with the research.

"The takeaway point from this study is that excessive sleepiness should not be ignored. Not only does it impair quality of life, daytime function, and vigilance and increase risk of sleepiness-related accidents, it may also be a marker for serious sleep disorders that can increase risk for medical disorders," he said.

Also commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Nathaniel Watson, MD, professor of neurology at the University of Washington (UW) and director of the UW Medicine Sleep Clinic, said it is "not surprising" that excessive daytime sleepiness might contribute to diabetes, hypertension, and other diseases.

"Sleep is something we spend a third of our lives doing. It impacts nearly every aspect of human physiology and we have a lot of basic science and epidemiologic research that shows when sleep is either inadequate or of poor quality or not timed correctly it can be associated with some of these untoward health outcomes," said Watson, who is a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

"This research just provides further evidence in support of the importance of sleep for overall health and well-being," he added.

Asking about sleepiness, sleep, or sleep quality should be a "vital sign just like temperature, blood pressure, weight, and these other measures," Watson said.

The study was supported by the Arrillaga Foundation. Ohayon, Greenberg, and Watson have reported no relevant financial relationships.

American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 2020 Annual Meeting: Abstract 4619. To be presented in April 2020.

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