Sleep Science and Sleep Disorders

Sleep is essential for good health. Not getting enough uninterrupted sleep negatively affects a person’s attention, learning and memory, and physical health. The NHLBI funds research on many sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, as well as jet lag and other disturbances of the body’s internal clocks or circadian rhythms.

Research Making a Difference

Research Making a Difference

Light at night from LED bulbs, tablets, and TV can confuse the brain and make it more difficult to sleep."
On those nights when you just can’t seem to fall asleep, here’s something to think about: Are you getting enough of the right light during the day and too much at night? Scientists have discovered that light is as essential to optimal health and development as vitamins and exercise.
Woman anxiously awake in bed at night.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT

Getting the right amount of uninterrupted sleep at the right time of day is key to one’s overall health. About 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep or wakefulness disorders. Sleep deficiency and untreated sleep disorders are associated with a growing number of health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. Sleep disorders can also be costly. Each year sleep disorders, sleep deprivation, and sleepiness add to the national health care bill. Undiagnosed sleep apnea alone is estimated to cost the Nation $150 billion annually. Additional costs to society for related health problems, lost worker productivity, and accidents make sleep disorders a serious public health concern. The NHLBI funds research to discover better ways to promote and achieve sleep health, inform public policy, and increase community awareness to enhance human health.

KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS
  • NHLBI-funded research helped determine that adults who report regularly sleeping 7-8 hours a night have a lower risk of obesity and high blood pressure.
  • Our research found that untreated sleep apnea increases the risk for new onset atrial fibrillation.
  • NHLBI-research found that untreated sleep apnea also increases the risk for high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy.
OPPORTUNITIES & CHALLENGES

Although researchers have learned a lot about sleep and sleep disorders in recent years, important questions remain, such as how sleep and circadian disturbances affect human health and how to best prevent, diagnose, and treat these disorders. In 2016, the NHLBI released its Strategic Vision, which will guide the Institute’s research activities for the coming decade. Many of the objectives, compelling questions, and critical challenges identified in the plan focus on sleep. For example, researchers will be looking at whether changing the time of day (circadian rhythm) when one sleeps, eats, and takes medicines can help improve existing treatments for other diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. Training the next generation of sleep scientists is also a high priority for NHLBI.

Partnering on Sleep Research and Health

NHLBI will continue to work with its partners to translate scientific sleep research discoveries into improved strategies to prevent and treat sleep disorders. NHLBI is committed to working with researchers, health care providers, and public and private organizations to implement the research opportunities outlined in the NIH Sleep Research Plan. Recommended research initiatives include looking at the connection between sleep and the body’s natural circadian rhythm, studying the influence of genetic and environmental factors that could influence a person's sleep health, and conducting more clinical trials to improve treatments for sleep and circadian disorders.

Improving the Sleep Health of our Nation

Sleep health continues to be a nationwide health improvement priority in Healthy People 2020. Healthy People provides science-based, national objectives for improving the health of all Americans over a 10-year period. The sleep health goal calls for an increase in public knowledge about how adequate sleep and treatment of sleep disorders can improve health, productivity, wellness, quality of life, and safety on the roads and in the workplace. This will be accomplished by focusing on four objectives:

  • Increase the proportion of people with symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea who seek medical evaluation.
  • Reduce the rate of vehicular crashes per 100 million miles traveled that are due to drowsy driving.
  • Increase the proportion of students in grades 9-12 who get sufficient sleep.
  • Increase the proportion of adults who get sufficient sleep.

Advancing the Research

NHLBI is advancing research and clinical care for people with sleep disorders. Learn more about some of our key efforts related to sleep science and sleep disorders.

We Perform Research

The NHLBI Division of Intramural Research and its Systems Biology Center are studying how genes and the environment influence sleep.

We Fund Research

The NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases is home to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, which supports research on sleep and the circadian biology of sleep disorders, including how the body regulates breathing during sleep, how sleep deficiencies affect the whole body, and what biomarkers can help assess sleep health. Other NHLBI Divisions support sleep research, including why sleep deficiency is a risk factor for obesity and some cardiovascular diseases, and how sleep and biology affect blood clotting, the immune system, and blood cell production.

The Promise of Precision Medicine

Through NHLBI’s Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) program, researchers will use data from studies focused on heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders to better predict, prevent, diagnose, and treat sleep disorders based on a patient’s unique genes, environment, and molecular signatures. Learn more about the NHLBI precision medicine activities.

Coordinating Efforts to Address the Nation's Health Challenges

Located in the NHLBI, the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) supports and coordinates sleep science and disorders research, training, and awareness across NIH, other federal agencies and outside organizations. The center also participates in the translation of new sleep research findings for dissemination to health care professionals and the public.

Facilitating Discussions on Sleep Disorders

The NHLBI supports the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board. Board members, including medical professionals, federal partners, and members of the public, meet regularly to provide feedback on sleep-related research and discuss how to move sleep research forward.

Partnering on Sleep Apnea and Pregnancy Outcomes Research

The NHLBI partnered with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in the NuMoM2B study, which found that sleep deficiency and mild sleep apnea in pregnant women increases the risk of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and diabetes.  The NHLBI and the NICHD are now studying whether the treatment of sleep apnea during pregnancy reduces these risks.

Collaborating on Sleep Apnea and Diabetes Research

The NHLBI partnered with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) for the Sleep Ahead study, an offshoot of the Look Ahead study. Sleep Ahead found sleep apnea in over 80 percent of participants who had obesity and type 2 diabetes. It also found that weight loss reduced sleep apnea better than a diabetes education program. These findings have led to new co-sponsored studies with NIDDK, such as TODAY2, to see if sleep apnea affects diabetes medicines.

Providing Sleep Data and Resources for Researchers

The National Sleep Research Resource is an NHLBI resource for the sleep science community. It offers researchers free access to large collections of well-characterized data from completed studies that the NHLBI has funded. These data can be used in new research studies to advance sleep research.

Providing Access to NHLBI Biologic Specimen and Data Repositories

The Biologic Specimen and Data Repositories Information Coordinating Center (BioLINCC) centralizes and integrates biospecimens and clinical data that were once stored separately in NHLBI’s Biologic Specimen Repository (Biorepository) or Data Repository. Researchers can find and access available resources with BioLINCC’s secure website, which maximizes the value of these resources and advances heart, lung, blood, and sleep research.

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