It may sound unbelievable, but can sleep deprivation actually cause your death? If you are concerned about the ultimate health consequence of sleep loss -- death -- you may also want to be mindful of other increased risks associated with simply not sleeping enough.
How Do We Define Sleep Deprivation?
If you do not obtain the amount of sleep that you need, you will begin to suffer from the ill effects of sleep deprivation. This may occur due to sleep restriction (simply not getting enough time in bed, asleep) or due to disrupted sleep. Common sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea may lead to sleep deprivation in these ways, respectively. As a result, there are important symptoms of sleep deprivation -- including excessive daytime sleepiness -- that may compromise your health.
The Risk of Death in Sleep Deprivation
In rare circumstances, chronic sleep deprivation may actually lead to your death. This may occur in extremely uncommon disorders such as fatal familial insomnia. In this genetic disorder, sleep becomes greatly fragmented and disrupted to the point that the affected person is unable to sleep at all. Ultimately, this condition leads to death.
In the past 10 years there have been more than 1,000 studies of sleep deprivation. In fact, some of the earliest research in the field of sleep medicine involved this topic. For example, a study of sleep loss in puppies was done in 1894 and another study of humans was done in 1896. The research in puppies demonstrated that prolonged sleep loss could be fatal, a fact that has been proven with numerous recent animal studies. It would be unethical to repeat such a study in humans, but there are other clear associations with sleep deprivation that may also prove fatal.
Sleep Deprivation and Traffic Accidents
There is a lot of evidence that sleep deprivation increases your risk of having a traffic accident. Aside from falling asleep behind the wheel, the inattentiveness and loss of concentration that can occur with sleep loss can also be problematic.
Since 1994, more than 20 studies have evaluated the effects of sleep loss on various measure of driving ability or safety. Much of this research includes the use of driving simulators to address safety in a sleep-deprived state. Some studies have shown that sleep deprivation may lead to a level of impairment equivalent to being legally drunk.
Many factors have been identified that increase your risk of having a car accident when sleep deprived. In particular, sleeping less than seven hours per night on average increases the risk. People who experience poor sleep quality or who have excessive daytime sleepiness are also more likely to have car accidents. In addition, another important factor is the time that the driving occurs, as driving at night is more likely to result in accidents in individuals who are sleep deprived.
This body of research has led to important safety regulations, especially with long-haul truck drivers.
Sleep Deprivation, Injuries and Work Accidents
There are many examples in the media of work-related injuries and accidents. Many of the bus, train and plane accidents that are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) involve people who are sleep deprived. A major risk factor involves shift work. Accidents are more likely to occur overnight, when we are meant to be asleep. Unless sleep patterns are adequately realigned, with consistent sleep and wake times established, the risk for shift workers increases. Insufficient and poor quality sleep only worsens the risk.
Major disasters have, in part, been blamed on sleep deprivation. A few well-known examples include the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and resulting oil spill in Alaska as well as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Aside from these headline events, there are also risks with sleep deprivation that may insidiously undermine your health.
Sleep Deprivation and Cardiovascular Disease
It is known that insufficient sleep may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. Research has shown that if you sleep less than five hours per night, you are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack. In addition, women who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to suffer the same fate. Furthermore, shift workers who are sleeping fewer hours, often poorly aligned to their natural circadian rhythm, are also at higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
What explains this relationship? Perhaps one role is the effect that sleep loss can have on inflammatory processes in the body. It is known that when we don’t sleep enough, blood levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, increase. This underlying inflammatory process may damage the lining of our blood vessels, making it more likely that we will develop atherosclerosis (a hardening and narrowing of the vessels) and ultimately heart attacks.
Sleep Deprivation and Obesity
Finally, there are numerous studies that support an association between sleep deprivation and the increased risk of obesity. There seem to be important effects on the metabolic machinery of our body if we don’t get adequate sleep.
Aside from the risk of death in extreme sleep deprivation, there are clearly numerous reasons that we should get enough rest to minimize the risks associated with inadequate sleep. We imperil our health when we fail to do so.
Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition, pp. 502-503.
Manaceine, M. "Quelques observations experimentales sur l’influence de l’insomnie absolue." Arch Ital Biol. 1894;21:322-325.
Patrick, GTW et al. "On the effect of loss of sleep." Psychol Rev. 1896;3:469-483.
Spiegel, K et al. "Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function." Lancet 1999;354(9188):1435-1439.