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Researchers from Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital evaluated the sleep habits of thousands of women and found too little shuteye was tied to a more rapid decline in kidney function.
Women who slept five hours or less a night had a 65 percent greater risk of rapid decline in kidney function, compared with women sleeping seven to eight hours a night, the investigators discovered.
"This is concerning because as a general population the amount of sleep we are getting has decreased over the last 20 years," said lead researcher Dr. Ciaran McMullan, an instructor in medicine.
Americans used to sleep an average of eight hours a night, but now it's about 6.5 hours and decreasing, he said.
It's not known whether sleeping longer improves kidney function or reverses damage caused by shortened sleep, he said.
McMullan cautioned that this study can only show that decreased kidney function is associated with less sleep, not that less sleep causes the decline in kidney function. For that, more research is needed, he said.
A connection between disrupted sleep and heart disease has been studied before.
"Diabetes occurs more often in people who sleep less, as does high blood pressure," he said. "We know that two of the greatest factors that decrease kidney function are diabetes and high blood pressure."
The body's natural rhythms, or so-called circadian clock, might also play a role, McMullan said. The kidney is timed to work differently during the night than during the day because the demands on the body are different, he explained.
"Maybe short sleep changes the physiology of the kidney over the daily cycle, and these changes might damage the kidney," McMullan suggested.
As the U.S. population ages and as more people suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, the number of people with kidney disease will increase, and too little sleep may play a part, he added.
"We are a sleep-deprived society," McMullan said. "The concern is that sleep deprivation will lead to a decline in kidney function."
He said it's likely the findings would also apply to men, but noted that would need to be studied.
The results of the study are scheduled for presentation Thursday at a meeting of the American Society of Nephrology in San Diego. The data and conclusions should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
For the study, McMullan's team collected data on more than 4,200 women who took part in the Nurses' Health Study. Over 11 years, the women's kidney function was measured at least twice.
Dr. Kenar Jhaveri, a nephrologist at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y., said the connection between sleep and kidney disease is new to him.
"At this point I would be very cautious about giving advice to patients based on this study," he said. "I certainly wouldn't change any sleep habits."
Jhaveri said seven hours of sleep is good for health. "People who sleep too little or too much are at risk for certain disorders," he added. "In terms of kidney disease, this is something that is going to be interesting in how it pans out."
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