Chris Kohlman has had trouble sleeping for as long as he can remember.
But the 63-year-old didn’t recognize how serious the problem was until about 15 years ago, when he continually would wake up tired or become drowsy during the day.
“I would sleep, but I wouldn’t wake up refreshed and would have trouble staying awake during the day,” Kohlman said. “I wasn’t as energetic as I was in the past, and it was causing me difficulties at work because I was able to do my job, but I couldn’t enjoy it like I used to.”
The Woodstock resident since has been a longtime patient at Centegra Sleep Services in Algonquin, where he participates in a variety of sleep tests and studies each year. Because of sleep apnea – a chronic condition in which a person repeatedly stops breathing during sleep – Kohlman also uses a CPAP mask, which helps him sleep at night. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure, which maintains blood oxygen levels that can drop with sleep apnea and episodes of not breathing for 10 seconds or longer.
Besides aiding in day-to-day routines, sleeping habits are increasingly being linked to heart health, experts say. Research has physicians and patients alike turning more toward sleep patterns and the effect they can have on the heart.
People who get less than six hours of sleep a night are at a significantly higher risk of stroke, heart attack and congestive heart failure, according to a study led by Dr. Rohit R. Arora of the Chicago Medical School. Those who get more than eight hours of sleep also are at a higher risk of developing heart problems, such as chest pain and coronary artery disease.
As part of the American College of Cardiology, researchers last year studied more than 3,000 patients over the age of 45 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which examined a broad range of health issues.
People getting too little sleep were two times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack, and 1.6 times more likely to have congestive heart failure, data showed. Those who got more than eight hours of sleep a night were two times more likely to have chest pains and 1.1 times more likely to have coronary artery disease.
Physicians across McHenry County have seen a similar trend in the link between sleeping patterns and heart health.
“There is a high correlation between quality sleep and being at risk for cardiovascular problems,” said Dr. Benjamin Nager, primary care physician at Centegra Sleep Services. “The majority of patients also have sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, and with treatment, can decrease those risks.”
Dr. Raja Sharma, cardiologist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, agreed.
“People with poor sleeping habits tend to get irregular heartbeats and patients can get some type of cardiac arrhythmias, which can lead to other more severe symptoms,” he said. “When you start treating people, you can get back to normal.”
More than 25 percent of the U.S. population reports occasionally not getting enough sleep, while nearly 10 percent experience chronic insomnia, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lack of sleep can lead to high blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, all things bad for the heart, Nager said. The treatment for problems such as sleep apnea can balance those out.
“What alerts me is when folks under the age of 60 come in for other problems and are on anti-hypertensive medications,” Nager said. “Heart attacks, strokes and heart failure all can be related to sleep apnea. Proper sleeping habits need to be drilled into these people.”
For the average person who sleeps too little or too much, balancing six to eight hours a sleep a night means a healthier and longer life.
That starts with discipline, said Dr. Mylinn Sawyer, physician at Mercy Woodstock Medical Center.
“Your body needs sleep,” she said. “Some people may feel fine and be functional, but that’s not the reality. It could affect your health long-term.”
Although more research is needed, experts say, the fact that physicians are recognizing the importance of sleeping habits as they relate to cardiovascular problems is a step in the right direction.