The statistics are startling: 50-70 million U.S. adults have sleep or wakefulness disorders, which account for $50 billion dollars in lost productivity each year. And even those who don’t have a diagnosed disorder often are affected by lack of sleep, asd evidenced by the fact that one-third of Americans get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.
What’s most troubling about those statistics from a medical perspective is that sleep and wakefulness disorders, and a lack of sleep, have far reaching consequences that can be much more worrisome than daytime sleepiness. Sleeping less than 7-8 hours each night, irregular sleep schedules, or poor quality sleep has been associated with numerous health risks, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure.
No one knows this better than NHLBI grantee Dr. Phyllis Zee, associate director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University and a professor at the Northwestern University Institute for Neuroscience.
Dr. Zee’s research in the sleep space runs the gamut from basic research into circadian rhythms and sleep to clinical research into the contribution of apnea and sleep to cardiometabolic disease risk during pregnancy. She currently is analyzing the results from the NHLBI-funded sleep component of the NuMoM2B study out of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. Zee’s substudy is the first time that sleep quality measures have been examined in a large pregnant population, and she and her fellow researchers can now dig deeper into the relationship between sleep quality and poor cardiovascular outcomes, including gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
Dr. Zee is also at the cutting edge of a potentially seismic philosophical shift in the world of sleep (and circadian rhythm) researchers: The growing realization of the interdependence of sleep research and research into circadian biology. Historically, the two fields have operated in a very independent fashion, but work by Dr. Zee and others is leading to the realization that the two fields can’t be separated. The collaboration among researchers from the two fields is leading to exciting new translational research in the chronomedicine space, i.e., using our knowledge of circadian rhythms to improve our day-to-day lives in terms of when and how we sleep, when we take our medicine, etc. It’s an area of research that the Institute is very interested in and an underrecognized opportunity to improve outcomes in a number of ways.
As Dr. Zee ponders the future of her field, she’s is overwhelmingly positive about the possibilities for great advancements in the science thanks to the increasing interactions between sleep and circadian rhythm researchers, and she believes that the future of her fields lies in the intersections between the two.
Dr. Zee’s leadership in the field of sleep research has provided an explosion of knowledge for those interested in how sleep affects our lives and our bodies. The advances to which she has contributed have opened new doors to understanding disease risk and new opportunities to manage and treat disease. And yet the statistics remain startling. With all that she’s accomplished, it’s clear that her work is not done.