New study: Hotter nights, climate change, cause sleep loss with some affected more than others

New study: Hotter nights, climate change, cause sleep loss with some affected more than others

According to a new study, sleep is impaired with temperatures over 50 degrees, and temps higher than 77 degrees reduce the chances of getting seven hours.

Photo by Altınay Dinç on Unsplash

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.”

Sherree Geyer
Sherree Geyer is a freelance health journalist. She regularly writes for “Pain Medicine News,” “Pharmacy Practice News” and other trade publications. A member of the Association of Healthcare Journalists, National Association of Science Writers and National Writers Union, she holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.
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