Catching ZZZ's

These 5 Healthy Sleep Habits Could Add 5 Years To Your Life

Sleeping well isn’t just about staying in bed longer — it’s also about making sure that time in bed is well spent.

by Ethan Freedman
A man and woman sleeping in bed together, cuddling.
Willie B. Thomas/Getty

Waking up after a rough night of sleep is never easy, especially when you’ve got to get the kids breakfast and head to work. But a new study finds that bad sleep isn’t just making your day harder — it may actually be shortening your life. And bad sleep isn’t just about not getting enough hours; quality is as important as quantity here, says Frank Qian, M.D., an internal medicine resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and one of the researchers on the new study.

The new research, which was presented at an American College of Cardiology conference last month and has not yet been peer-reviewed or published, took a holistic look at five different factors that make up a good night’s sleep: spending seven to eight hours in bed, falling asleep easily, staying asleep easily, not using sleep medication, and waking up feeling well-rested.

The researchers used data from a health survey in the U.S. with more than 170,000 participants with an average age of 50. They grouped participants by how many of the five beneficial sleep factors they usually reported and followed them over a median time of 4.3 years to see if and how they died. During the follow-up period, more than 8,500 participants died — 30% from heart disease, 24% from cancer, and 46% from other causes.

Overall, people who regularly reported all five healthy sleep factors were 30% less likely to die for any reason than people who reported zero or one of the healthy sleep factors.


How much less likely participants were to die during the study period if they regularly reported all five healthy sleep factors compared to those who reported zero or one.

By projecting these results onto a whole lifespan, the researchers calculated that a 30-year-old man with all five healthy sleep factors could expect to live 4.7 years longer than a 30-year-old man with none or one of the factors. For women, the highest-quality sleepers could expect to live 2.4 years longer than women who got the worst quality sleep.

The researchers didn’t look at any of the specific ways that good sleep may extend your life, but scientists know that sleep is important for regulating hormones, blood pressure, the immune system, and even brain function, Qian says.

A bad night of sleep might also increase a whole other kind of risk: accidents. If you wake up feeling tired and then get behind the wheel of a car, for example, you’re much more likely to get into a car crash, which Qian says could be reflected in their results.

Tips For Developing Healthy Sleep Habits

Jennifer Acostamadiedo, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, echoes the need to focus on sleep quality over sleep quantity — and offers some advice on how people can implement good sleep habits like the ones studied in this new research.

To start, instead of focusing on getting seven or eight hours of sleep, Acostamadiedo suggests working backward from the morning. Wake up at the same time every day, and then notice how you feel after different amounts of sleep. “That will give you your sleep duration that is good for you,” she says.

To help yourself fall asleep quickly, limit your screen time before bed, keep your bedroom dark (which helps stimulate the production of the sleep hormone melatonin), and maybe even keep your room colder, which might help you fall asleep, Acostamadiedo says.

If you find yourself often waking up in the middle of the night, you might want to get checked for a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, she notes. Drinking alcohol or other liquids can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, she adds. Alcohol can also disrupt sleep patterns and cause night sweats, which could also make you wake up in the middle of the night.

When you do wake up in the middle of the night, try to estimate how long you’ve been awake. “If, after 15 minutes, you cannot fall asleep, you actually should get out of your bed and go to a living room, to a different space,” Acostamadiedo says. The idea is to stop associating your bed with the struggle to fall asleep, she explains.

But just because you’re awake doesn’t mean you can get to work — Acostamadiedo recommends reading a boring book to keep your brain calm and remind yourself that this is a time for sleeping. People with chronic insomnia can also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy that retrains them on how to sleep, she adds.

And if you’re currently relying on sleep medication to fall asleep, Acostamadiedo says you should discuss that with a medical professional to make sure any changes to your medication routine will be safe and to discuss a plan to potentially wean yourself off.

The last healthy sleep habit in the study — waking up well-rested — is harder to shoot for. But Acostamadiedo says people should focus on what makes them feel better, instead of relying on one-size-fits-all guidelines or assessments, such as sleep-tracking apps.

Incorporating these habits could help you feel better every day, and might even make you healthier, as the new study shows. That doesn’t mean retraining yourself into better sleep is always easy, however.

“I try to tell my patients, ‘Hey, it's gonna be uncomfortable at the beginning, and your body's going to fight it off,’” Acostamadiedo says. “But always remind yourself this is for the better good.”