Can Poor Sleep Predict Disease?

By Jennifer Nelson

Chronic sleep deprivation is one of the most serious health complaints these days. Now, research suggests that chronic sleep deprivation may be a precursor to a number of other diseases as well.

Here’s what we know about the sleep/disease link:

Parkinson’s disease

People who have a REM sleep disorder that fails to paralyze their muscles while sleeping, allowing them to act out dreams, have shown a 75 percent likelihood of developing Parkinson’s decades later. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people with Parkinson’s also are at higher risk for restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic leg movement disorder (PLMD), two conditions that may seriously disrupt sleep. However, there is no evidence that RLS or PLMD are risk factors for Parkinson’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease

Studies of mice with plaque buildup in their brains slept poorly, which suggests trouble sleeping may be an early Alzheimer’s warning sign. What’s more, brain pathways involved in the act of daydreaming or introspection in people who have chronic daytime sleepiness are the same pathways affected by Alzheimer’s. So a lack of ability to let your mind wander, or go into “default mode,” may be an early precursor to this memory-stealing disorder.

“We are very interested in exploring these new observations to understand who is at risk and who is protected from Alzheimer’s,” said study author Randy L. Buckner, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.

Obviously not everyone with poor sleeping habits is destined to get Alzheimer’s disease, however.


People who are short on sleep and spend less time in REM sleep crave more sweet, salty and fatty foods, leading to weight gain. Research shows that a lack of sleep can impair appetite regulation, skew glucose metabolism and raise blood pressure, which can lead to overeating.

“These findings show that sleeping poorly can increase a person’s risk of developing obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease,” said Dr. Kristen Knutson of the University of Chicago.

Further study is needed to determine whether improving sleep can thwart these disorders.


In an animal study at the Medical College of Wisconsin, researchers found that abnormalities in bone and bone marrow were prevalent in rats that were chronically sleep-deprived. If the same results are to be found in humans—and the researchers suspect so— it would indicate a lack of sleep could cause changes in bone density, leading to osteoporosis and the inability to repair bone damage as we age.

If you sleep poorly or are being treated for sleep disorders such as insomnia, REM disorder or sleep apnea, talk with your doctor about whether you may be at higher risk for developing one or more of these conditions. There could be lifestyle changes, tests or precautions to help you reduce your risk.