Auburn University researchers: Insufficient sleep puts black Americans at higher disease risk than white Americans

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Auburn University researchers have found sleep to be a significant factor in the high prevalence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among black American adults, compared to white American adults.

The findings were discovered by Auburn University doctoral candidate David Curtis, Associate Professor Thomas Fuller-Rowell and Mona El-Sheikh, the Leonard Peterson & Co. Inc. Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, all in the College of Human Sciences, as well as researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Their work has been published in an upcoming edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

Insufficient and disrupted sleep has been linked to cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Of note is that black American adults have more sleep problems relative to white Americans, as well as unequal rates of hypertension, diabetes and stroke prevalence.

The reasons underlying these racial health disparities are not well understood, and so the team examined, as possible explanations, differences in total sleep time and sleep efficiency—percentage of time in bed asleep—between 426 black and white adults over seven nights.

Seven biomarkers such as blood pressure and waist circumference were used to index cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk, while sociodemographic characteristics and relevant health behaviors were also taken into account.

The results revealed that black Americans experienced less total sleep and lower sleep efficiency than white Americans. The differences in sleeping patterns between the two groups accounted for more than one-half of racial differences in cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk.

According to the authors, the findings might have implications for reducing racial differences in cardiovascular and metabolic disease.

With the U.S. government committed to reducing racial health disparities, Fuller-Rowell said the study provides one potential behavioral explanation.

“Sleep is a malleable health behavior that is linked with characteristics of the social and physical environment and could be an effective target in national efforts to reduce racial health disparities,” he said.

El-Sheikh, a nationally known expert in sleep and children’s cognitive development, combined her expertise with Fuller-Rowell, whose research focuses on sleep and other potential contributors to disparities in disease rates between black and white American adults. Curtis works in Fuller-Rowell’s lab as part of his doctoral studies.

The study is fitting work at Auburn where the university has committed to addressing health disparities under its strategic hiring initiative. Five research scientists have been hired so far to fill roles in nursing, kinesiology, human development and family studies, pharmacy and nutrition. The cluster will form multidisciplinary collaborative research teams across campus to identify, understand and remediate health disparities in the community, state, region, nation and world.

The new hire in human development and family studies is Associate Professor David Chae, who not only works with Fuller-Rowell and El-Sheikh, but serves as director of the Center for Health Ecology and Equity Research, or CHEER, in the College of Human Sciences. The mission of CHEER is to conduct research to address health inequities and enhance human health.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.