While sleep is important to human health and can affect your mood and well-being, there is no strong evidence that lack of sleep can directly kill you, says Dr. Marshall. However, it can impair your judgment and increase the risk of death from a fatal accident. Insufficient sleep may seem like a small problem, but it can wreak havoc on your health in significant and surprising ways.
In fact, many studies have shown that lack of sleep increases the risk of several serious health problems that can even lead to premature death. Read on to learn more about mortality and lack of sleep. Yes, you just read that lack of sleep can't kill you, except in the case of the rare genetic disease FFI. While there is no hard evidence that people die directly from lack of sleep, people can (and do) die from events related to lack of sleep.
We know that there is a condition associated with lack of sleep that can be fatal. With fatal familial insomnia, a prion disease of the brain, patients progress from complete insomnia to dementia and die seven to 36 months after onset. However, it is a degenerative brain disease and also affects other bodily regulatory functions, such as temperature and heart rate regulation. So even here, it's not just insomnia that causes the problem.
An incredibly rare sleep disorder called fatal familial insomnia (FFI) can also result in death. People feel irritable after sleepless nights (as we've all experienced at some point), and research has also found that people are more distressed by common circumstances, such as interruptions at work when they're tired. Even participants who were allowed to sleep four hours a night showed a high heart rate compared to those who received eight hours of sleep. Gardner's 11-day experiment didn't kill him, but anyone who has experienced total sleep deprivation can probably attest that the end feels near.
That's why fitness advocates always point out that sleep is an essential part of getting fit. The mutated gene produces misfolded prions that accumulate in the thalamus, which is the region of the brain that regulates sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep, and children need to sleep even more, although needs vary from person to person. Physical activity can tire you out, so it may seem logical to assume that getting enough exercise will improve your sleep.
Perhaps the most famous sleep deprivation study occurred in 1964, when a 17-year-old boy, Randy Gardner, voluntarily went 264 hours (11 days) without sleep. Another study reported greater marital happiness among women with a quieter sleep, although it is difficult to tell if happy people sleep better or if sleeping well makes people happier. Concentrations of C-reactive protein, a marker of heart disease risk, also increase in people who are totally or partially deprived of sleep. Severe lack of sleep seems to affect your ability to hold a conversation much like drinking too much.
Sleep deprivation induces ROS accumulation and oxidative stress in the gut of mice (left) and flies (center). Researchers have found that young adults with a lack of sleep are less likely to connect socially with other people, and that people who report poor sleep also tend to say they are lonelier. These experiments indicate that severe lack of sleep kills flies mainly through the accumulation of ROS in the gut. .