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Atherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries characterized by the deposition of fatty plaques on the arteries' inner walls. Roughly half of all deaths in developed countries are attributed to atherosclerosis. A new study suggests that a pro-inflammatory pathway triggered by poor sleep contributes to the risk of developing atherosclerosis.

The study involved more than 1,600 ethnically and racially diverse adults (average age, 68 years) enrolled in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. The authors of the study measured the participants' home sleep and activity levels over a period of a week and assessed their brain activity during one night in a sleep laboratory. They also ran blood tests to identify biomarkers associated with disease processes and determined the participants' coronary artery calcification scores, which provide reliable measures of atherosclerosis.

They found that poor, fragmented sleep led to increased levels of proinflammatory molecules and white blood cells (neutrophils and monocytes). Together, these factors promote inflammation, a key driver in the pathogenesis of not only atherosclerosis but many other diseases as well. Poor sleep also predicted the degree of coronary artery calcification. Their findings held true even after ruling out factors related to age, ethnicity, gender, body mass index, sleep disorders, blood pressure, and smoking.

These findings underscore the fact that sleep has far-reaching effects on many aspects of health. Learn more in this clip featuring sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, in which he describes how the different stages of sleep influence both mental and cardiovascular health.

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