As a 30-something, I hereby resolve to sleep more in 2009. And published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association is a well-timed finding to motivate my New Year's resolution: Longer sleep duration for people in their 30s and 40s may decrease the risk of coronary artery calcification, a predictor of atherosclerosis and heart disease. In fact, the study showed that one extra hour each night lowered the estimated odds of having such gunk in the vasculature by 33 percent. According to the study authors, getting that extra hour brings a benefit, cardiovascularly speaking, similar to that of lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number in the blood pressure ratio) by 17 points.
Diane Lauderdale, study director and associate professor of health studies at the University of Chicago, noted that the results need to be replicated by further research. But she says the 30s and 40s are "a time when many people start on a trajectory leading to coronary disease risk." Certainly, that's not how I think of myself at age 32. Subjects' coronary calcification was found in the study by imaging tests (not typically given to this age group) and considered subclinical, meaning not yet developed into full-blown disease.
While previous research has also shown plenty of reasons to avoid skimping on sleep, Lauderdale says "very little is understood about what determines people's length of sleep." In my case, staying up late to read in bed, then grasping at a few more winks once the alarm goes off, is a major factor in feeling less-than-well-rested.
But fellow 30-somethings (and you 20-somethings and 40-somethings, too), this new study has a potentially broader lesson for us: We are mere mortals. I'm starting to suspect my dad is right when he chuckles and warns that "nobody gets out alive." Thus, my challenge to myself and to you as the New Year arrives is to tend to our health. To the end of the familiar list—exercise, stop smoking, eat more fruits and vegetables, stay trim, consume fewer calories and less fattening, salty, sugary food—tack on getting plenty of good sleep. Simple rules; difficult execution.
That's probably because in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, most of us have no glaring warnings of impending disaster. Yet, these are the years when cardiovascular disease starts to lay its groundwork. The American Heart Association's 2008 year-end report noted that 15 percent of men and 5 percent of women between the ages of 33 and 45 have subclinical atherosclerosis, based on a meta-analysis of research that involved imaging tests.
Donald Lloyd-Jones, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and first author on the AHA report, admonishes us premiddle-agers, "If you make it to middle-age, say 50, with a really low risk factor burden, you live healthier longer and you have an almost negligible risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer." The way this often plays out for those who achieve this goal, he explains, is they don't get sick until the very end of life. I'd personally prefer to go out with as little illness and suffering as possible.
And what are the elements of a "really low risk factor burden"? Good numbers: for cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight. In fact, where we tip the scales seems to tie it all together, says Lloyd-Jones. "Most people put on one pound per year after age 25, but it's not risk-free," he says. "That gain is what drives up blood pressure, worsens lipids, and makes us susceptible to diabetes."
Plenty is said about the childhood obesity epidemic and aging baby boomers' health, but considerably less about our own 20-, 30-, and 40-something cohort—and that silence just might be deadly, albeit years down the line.