Data from the National Sleep Foundation finds that the optimal bedroom temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. But we may be getting fewer hours of "good sleepin’ weather" as the climate warms, according to a recent paper from researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Published in One Earth, the study finds that heat related to climate change could provide a “pathway” to sleep deprivation. The authors say the effect is “substantially larger” for those in lower-income countries. Hours of sleep decline when nighttime temperature exceeds 50 degrees, and temps higher than 77 reduce the chances of sleeping for seven hours by 3.5 percent. Even small losses associated with rising temperatures contribute significantly to people not getting enough sleep.
We’re affected by high temperatures at night because body temperature becomes more sensitive to the environment when slumbering. “Mechanisms that control for thermal regulation become more disordered during sleep,” explains Clete Kushida, a neurologist, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and sleep medicine clinician.
The study finds that women and older adults are especially vulnerable. Worldwide, the elderly lost over twice as much sleep per degree of warming compared to younger people. This phenomenon was apparent between the ages of 60 and 70, and it increased beyond age 70. “The mechanism for balancing temperatures appears to be more affected with age,” Kushida adds.
Others disproportionately affected include those who live in regions with more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which accelerate climate change, and people in hotter locales will lose more sleep per degree of warming, according to the study, with suboptimal temperatures potentially eroding 50 to 58 hours of sleep per person per year. One might think that those in warmer countries can adapt to the heat, but the researchers found no evidence for such adjustments. “We actually found those living in the warmest climate regions were impacted over twice as much as those in the coldest climate regions,” says the study's lead author, Kelton Minor, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Social Data Science.
Short sleep can reduce cognitive performance and productivity, increase absenteeism from work or school, and lead to a host of other physical and psychosocial problems. These issues include a compromised immune system, hypertension, depression, anger and suicide, say the study’s authors. According to a fact sheet by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of U.S. adults already report sleeping fewer hours than the recommended amount, even though sufficient sleep “is not a luxury—it is something people need for good health.”
Equitable policy and planning are needed to ensure equal access to cooling technologies in a warming world.
Beyond global health, a sleep-deprived world will impact the economy as the climate warms. “Less productivity at work, associated with sleep loss or deprivation, would result in more sick days on a global scale, not just in individual countries,” Kushida says.
Unlike previous research that measured sleep patterns with self-reported surveys and controlled lab experiments, the study in One Earth offers a global analysis that relies on sleep-tracking wristbands that link more than seven million sleep records of 47,628 adults across 68 countries to local and daily meteorological data, offering new insight into the environmental impact on human sleep. Controlling for individual, seasonal and time-varying confounds, researchers found the main way that higher temperatures shorten slumber is by delaying sleep onset.
Heat effects on sleep were seen in industrialized countries including those with access to air conditioning, notes the study. Air conditioning may buffer high indoor temperatures, but they also increase GHG emissions and ambient heat displacement, thereby exacerbating the unequal burdens of global and local warming. Continued urbanization is expected to contribute to these problems.
Previous sleep studies have found an inverse U-shaped response to temperature in highly controlled settings, with subjects sleeping worse when room temperatures were either too cold or too warm. However, “people appear far better at adapting to colder outside temperatures than hotter conditions,” says Minor.
Although there are ways of countering the heat effect, some populations have more access to them. “Air conditioning can help with the effect of higher temperature, but not all individuals can afford air conditioners,” says Kushida. He points out that this could drive even greater inequity between higher- and lower-income countries.
Equitable policy and planning are needed to ensure equal access to cooling technologies in a warming world. “Clean and renewable energy systems and interventions will be needed to mitigate and adapt to ongoing climate warming,” Minor says. Future research should investigate “policy, planning and design innovation,” which could reduce the impact of sweltering temperatures on a good night’s sleep for the good of individuals, society and our planet, asserts the study.
Unabated and on its current trajectory, by 2099 suboptimal temperatures could shave 50 to 58 hours of sleep per person per year, predict the study authors. “Down the road, as technology develops, there might be ways of enabling people to adapt on a large scale to these higher temperatures,” says Kushida. “Right now, it’s not there.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.