Alaska Sleep Education Center

What's the Connection between Race and Sleep Disorders?

Posted by Jennifer Hines

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on Feb 19, 2019 12:53:00 PM

While factors like lifestyle and mental health can raise your risk for sleep disorders, so can something else: your race. Racial minorities have a higher risk for sleep disorders like insomnia than Caucasians. For example, African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to sleep for fewer than six hours a night and have sleep apnea, poor sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. On average, African Americans sleep almost an hour less a night than whites.

On top of that, African Americans spend only about 15 percent of their night in a stage called slow-wave sleep (which is considered to be the most restorative phase ). Caucasians, on the other hand, spend 20 percent of their night there, so the sleep that they’re getting is of a higher quality. People of Hispanic and Chinese heritage also have higher rates of issues like sleep-disordered breathing and short sleep durations, compared with whites.

These differences in sleep quality don’t just make minorities more likely to be tired; they may also have a domino effect on mental and physical health. Many of the health issues that affect racial minorities at higher rates, like heart disease and diabetes , can be linked with poor sleep.

What’s going on here? That’s harder to determine. One thing that is known is that it’s not just socioeconomic factors. While the race gap gets smaller when you take income into account, it doesn’t go away, [5] and while living in a safe, quiet neighborhood (which is likely more expensive) can help you sleep better, that doesn't explain the problem entirely, either. Another potential cause is higher levels of stress and worry (minorities are likelier to deal with discrimination in their daily lives).

Interestingly, there’s also a difference in how sleep habits are taught to children of different races. Caucasian children are likelier to have strict bedtimes than African American or Hispanic children. By missing out on learning sleep habits as a kid, it can be harder to create them from scratch as an adult.

This is supported by the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll , which found that  African Americans are likelier to fill their hour before bedtime with activities, instead of relaxing or winding down.black1

These findings show that many different factors can play a role in the quality of sleep that you get each night. Some of these factors, unfortunately, are largely outside your control. But following healthy sleep tips can help you minimize the problem as much as possible and feel more refreshed each day.

Sleep apnea is common -- but rarely diagnosed -- among black Americans, researchers say.

The new study included 852 black men and women, average age 63, in Jackson, Mississippi, who were participants in the Jackson Heart Sleep Study.

The investigators found that 24 percent of the study participants had moderate or severe sleep apnea, but only 5 percent had been diagnosed by a doctor.

"In other words, over 95 percent of this sample experience nightly stresses associated with periods when breathing stops and oxygen levels fall," said study author Dayna Johnson. She's an associate epidemiologist in the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Untreated sleep apnea can increase risk for hypertension-related diseases such as stroke, a condition disproportionately common in African-Americans," Johnson explained in a hospital news release.

In the study, men were 12 percent to 15 percent more likely to have sleep apnea than women. Participants with chronic snoring, higher body mass index (an estimate of body fat based on height and weight) and larger neck size were more likely to have sleep apnea.

"We also learned that asking about habitual snoring and measuring neck size (a risk factor for sleep apnea) can help identify individuals at risk," Johnson added.

black2Sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes and other health problems.

About 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans with sleep apnea are undiagnosed, and black Americans account for a large number of such people, the study authors noted.


The study was published Sept. 5 in the journal Sleep.

Michael Twery is director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, part of the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He said, "These findings in the Jackson Heart Study reveal that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed and a potential threat to the health and safety of African-Americans."

According to Twery, who was not involved with the new report, "Further studies are needed to develop the tools and systems required to facilitate diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea in African-Americans and other communities."

If you live in Alaska and need a sleep assessment, call Alaska Sleep Clinic to speak with one of our board-certified sleep specialists.  

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