The Connection Between Sleep Disorders and Stroke

Sleep disorders have a long-recognized connection to stroke, including both insufficient sleep and excessive sleep. It’s very important to correct any sleep problems to improve every aspect of your health, including decreasing your stroke risk. 

The relationship between sleep disorders, vascular risk factors, and stroke is well-documented, though not well understood. Consequences of untreated sleep disorders include decreased cognitive dysfunction, altered mood, and daytime fatigue, which can influence stroke occurrence, recurrence, and recovery.

One-third of American adults report getting less than seven hours of sleep each night, and 50-70 million have a sleep disorder. Habitual snoring affects up to 40% of the adult population in the United States and is associated with increased stroke risk. Breathing pauses while sleeping caused by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are believed to increase stroke risk in several ways:

  • Changes in airway pressure
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood
  • Heart working harder to pump blood because of decreased oxygen level
  • Blood vessels in the heart constricting in response to heart trouble 

These physiological responses increase the risk of both stroke and heart attack, especially at night.

Signs that you have OSA or other sleep disorder

If you have insomnia, you probably know it. You may have trouble falling asleep, wake up too early, or awaken multiple times during the night. But you may not know if you have OSA or snoring.

Signs that you have a sleep disorder include dozing off while sitting and reading, riding in a car, watching television, or even while talking to someone. Other signs may include memory loss or poor concentration; mental fog; irritability or weepiness; or short-lasting morning headaches. You may be told that you snore, stop breathing during the night, or sound like you’re choking at night.

Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and age are all factors that contribute to a higher risk of sleep apnea, and they are also risks of stroke. 

Excessive sleep can also be a risk factor for stroke, as well as for dementia and cardiovascular disease. A study published in the journal Neurology followed nearly 32,000 participants for 6 years, an average age of 62 at the beginning of the study, with no history of stroke or serious health conditions. Compared to people who slept 7-8 hours per day, those who slept 9 or more hours per night had a 23% greater risk of stroke, while those who slept 9 or more hours and also napped during the day had an 85% greater risk of stroke. Those who had poor sleep quality were also at a greater risk of stroke. 

Prevention and management of sleep disorders

If you recognize any of the symptoms described, start with some lifestyle changes. First, turn off technology at least an hour before going to bed. The blue light emitted from cell phones and computers hinders healthy sleep by inhibiting the production of melatonin. The content you are consuming may also cause you stress that will not be easy to release right before bed.

Avoid alcohol at least three hours before bed and caffeine at least six hours before bed.  

Develop relaxation techniques, such as journaling, meditating, engaging in a relaxing activity such as knitting, or spending pleasant time with family and friends. Some people find a warm bath or shower very relaxing.

Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day in order to train your body into a healthy rhythm of wake time and sleep time. Daily exercise and time outside in the sun, as well as turning the lights low before bed, can stimulate sleep hormones and help create a healthy sleep rhythm. 

If sleep problems persist, particularly OSA or snoring, which are not easily corrected by lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor about ways to manage your sleep issues. A good night’s sleep is critical for overall health, and a lack of healthy sleep can also hamper your body’s ability to properly heal itself and recover from illness or injury. 

If you are at high risk of stroke, ask your doctor about the Neuralert stroke detection system, a non-invasive wristband technology that can detect possible signs of stroke within minutes and send an alert to your medical team, hastening treatment and decreasing the risk of serious damage from a stroke.