Study links poor dream-stage REM sleep to higher risk of death

Image shows older woman in bed who appears to have difficulty sleeping.

Insufficient REM sleep appears to be associated with a higher risk of death among middle-aged and older adults, according to a new study. REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, refers to the stage of sleep during which most dreaming occurs.

Recent studies have linked insufficient sleep and poor-quality sleep to many health problems, including heart disease and high blood pressure. But researchers know little about how the proportion of time spent in REM sleep and non-REM sleep influences health outcomes.

To find out, the researchers studied 2,675 older men, with an average age of 76, who were followed for about 12 years. The researchers also collected data on nearly 1,400 middle-aged men and women, average age 52, who were part of another study group and were followed for 21 years. For both groups, the researchers found that insufficient REM sleep was associated with early death from any cause.

Researchers found that for every 5% reduction in REM sleep, death rates increased 13% to 17% among the older men studied and observed similar results among the middle-aged men and women studied. Although the mechanism linking poor REM sleep to a higher death rate is unclear, the study suggests that strategies to improve REM sleep may improve health and reduce the risk of early death in adults.  The study, partly funded by the NHLBI, appeared in JAMA Neurology.