Irregular Sleep Patterns May Increase Risk of Arterial Plaque Buildup


More than 90 minutes of varied sleep time may also increase a person’s risk of developing hardened arteries.

People who have irregular sleep durations are more likely to develop atherosclerosis, which is the occurrence of plaque build-up on artery walls, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Patients with irregular sleep duration also had a 1.4 times greater likelihood of developing calcified arterial plaque buildup, which can increase cardiovascular disease (CVD) events.

“This study is one of the first investigations to provide evidence of a connection between irregular sleep duration and irregular sleep timing and atherosclerosis,” said study lead author Kelsie Full, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of epidemiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, in a recent press release.

Atherosclerosis can cause the arteries to narrow and block the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the body. Additionally, atherosclerosis can lead to blood clots, which can increase a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke, according to information published by the American Heart Association (AHA).

Investigators conducted a study to evaluate the link between sleep pattern and risk of developing atherosclerosis. They identified 2000 patients who were CVD-free from the Multi‐Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) who came from 1 of 6 US communities and were aged between 45 and 84 years.

For 3 years (2010 to 2013), participants wore a wrist device to detect sleep versus awake time. While asleep, they were measured for sleep duration, the total amount of time a person is fully asleep in bed, and sleep timing, defined as the time it took someone to fall asleep every night.

Further, the participants completed a weeklong sleep diary and took part in a 1-night, in-home sleep study, where investigators measured the patients’ breathing, sleep stages, waking after sleep onset, and heart rate. Arterial plaque was measured by concentrations of calcified fatty plaque buildup in arteries (coronary artery calcium), fatty plaque buildup in neck arteries (carotid plaque presence), carotid intima-media thickness, and narrowed peripheral arteries (the ankle brachial index).

The results showed that varied sleep duration (more than 2 hours in a week) increased a person’s likelihood of carotid plaque buildup by 1.12 times and increased their likelihood of narrowed peripheral arteries. Further, irregular sleep timing that varied more than 90 minutes in a week increased the likelihood of high coronary artery calcium by 1.43 times. The investigators found no link between irregular sleep time and other CVD markers.

The study was limited due to being cross-sectional and could not confirm sleep irregularity causes atherosclerosis development. The AHA suggests that adults should have between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Poor sleep has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, among other CVD conditions.

“Maintaining regular sleep schedules and decreasing variability in sleep is an easily adjustable lifestyle behavior that can not only help improve sleep, but also help reduce cardiovascular risk for aging adults,” Full said in the press release.


American Heart Association. Irregular sleeping habits may increase risk of atherosclerosis in older adults. News Release. February 15, 2023. Accessed February 15, 2023.

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