Don’t think that being an athlete or gym rat protects you from the risk of heart disease if you sleep excessively. And what is the definition of “excessive” sleep ?

It’s at least nine hours a night.

Sleeping nine or more hours a night is linked to increased risk of heart disease and attack, say various studies (e.g., Shankar et al).

These studies, however, do not distinguish between athletes and non-athletes in the people who participate, which begs the question:

What about heart disease or heart attack risk in the athlete who sleeps over nine hours a night?

I’m an athlete so I posed this question to Dr. Michael Nolledo, MD, a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist with Campbell County Health in Gillette, WY.

Sometimes after a brutal training session earlier in the day, an athlete just wants to snooze overnight a good 10 or more hours.

The athlete may figure that the extra sleep time is easily offset by the extra-active lifestyle, and hence, there should not be any increased risk of heart disease or heart attack.

Dr. Nolledo explains, “There is data showing a correlation between increased sleep (over seven hours) with increased incidence of CVD (cardiovascular disease), but the mechanism why this happens is unclear — and whether it is the long sleep duration itself that increases CVD risk or another condition that predisposes to someone sleeping more such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).”

In other words, does slumber of over seven, eight or nine hours do something to the body that increases the risk of heart disease; and/or, is a person, who has a problem with their body (that can eventually lead to heart disease or attack), inclined to sleep longer because this problem also induces extra grogginess or inhibits the body’s ability to feel refreshed in the morning?

Now, in the case of sleeping under six hours a night, a causal relationship has been established. Fewer than six hours a night outright increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Says Dr. Renee P. Bullock-Palmer, MD, “There has been significant research that has associated sleep deprivation with the development of cardiovascular risks such as hypertension and also has been linked to heart disease.

“Also sleep apnea itself may cause disordered sleep habits, and sleep deprivation and OSA in and of itself has been linked to not only hypertension but also heart disease.”

Dr. Bullock-Palmer is the Director of The Women’s Cardiac Center at Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

She continues, “Sleep apnea risk also increases with obesity, and obesity as we all know is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so may of these patients with OSA are definitely at risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

“However I am not aware that increased hours of sleep in athletes pose them at great risk for heart disease.”

Dr. Nolledo concurs: “At this time, I would say there appears to be an association between increased sleep duration with CVD, but more studies need to be done in order to determine the actual mechanism behind this.

“I certainly would not make a blanket recommendation that one should actively try to sleep less if they are presently routinely sleeping 8-9 hours now.

“If those patients have other sleep related complaints such as excessive sleepiness, loud snoring, non-restorative sleep, etc., then they should be discussing these with a sleep specialist.”

So for athletes concerned about longer sleep possibly raising their risk of heart disease, relax, plump up your pillows and drift away to dreamland while your hard-worked muscles recuperate.

Dr. Nolledo is the former medical director of the Institute for Sleep Medicine and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Balance Program in NJ.
Dr. Bullock-Palmer has a particular interest in women’s heart disease and cardiac imaging.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.