NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – Lack of sleep is overall bad for health, but a recent study shows us that the consequences can be worse than we thought. Chronically disrupted sleep can trigger heart disease and dementia. Sleeping less than six hours a night increases heart attack risk by 20 percent, as researchers discovered in a recent Vanderbilt study.

Tossing and turning at night is more than just annoying – poor sleep triggers cardiovascular issues by plugging arteries with dangerous plaque, and causing them to stiffen.

Kelsie Full, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Epidemiology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, explains, “Poor sleep can alter the regulation of hormones, it can cause increased inflammation.”

This causes fatty plaque buildup in arteries that can cause stroke. Simultaneously, blood pressure soars, oxygen goes down, and the body is prevented from cleansing and repairing itself.

“For the brain, sleep is the time when the brain is flushed of harmful toxins that can contribute to Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Professor Full adds.

The key to making this happen is getting good quality, consistent sleep, but many people suffer with irregular sleep patterns.

Professor Full says, “In our large sample, we found that approximately 40% of adults had irregular sleep patterns, and their sleep was varying across the week by about 90 minutes or more. And this is really important because sleep regularity is something that we can potentially target. So, we can try to have more consistent bedtimes, we can try to wake up at about the same time.”

Professor Full suggests effective sleep hygiene by minimizing light, lowering the thermostat and avoiding caffeine and stress. Finally, keep a sleep journal for 10 days. If you realize you’re short on sleep, see your doctor.

Sleep requirements vary by age, with infants needing 12 to 16 hours and older adults only requiring seven – an estimated 83.6 million Americans sleep fewer than that. Factors such as obesity, chronic illness, even where you live, has an impact.