35-year-old anaesthesiologist, Dr. Stefanus Taofik of Indonesia, died suddenly of heart failure in June of 2017, after working 4 consecutive days at multiple hospitals during Eid al-Fitr (known as Hari Raya in Indonesia). The father of one had volunteered to take on extra shifts at his own hospital, Bintaro Jaya Hospital, but was also reported to have volunteered additional time at 2 separate hospitals to help cover the shifts of those celebrating the holiday. After 4 straight days of working, Dr. Taofik was found dead in a hospital ward.
The young man had literally worked himself to death, serving his colleagues and patients.
Scientifically speaking, Taofik’s associates should have seen this tragedy coming. Extreme sleep deprivation is known to alter cardiovascular functions, including heart rate and blood pressure, in addition to altering the body’s hormonal stress response, and significantly raising the risk of a cardiovascular event. (1)
Understanding Heart Failure
Heart failure is a condition that actually represents a pretty diverse set of problems; it’s not a disease. It could occur over a very long period of time or it can be built up quite quickly. It will also look different, depending on which part of the heart is failing. In general, heart failure refers to the loss of ability to pump enough blood throughout the body to meet its needs. For example, heart failure could be technically due to thinning or weakening of the muscles, loss of elasticity in heart muscles, narrowed heart valves, or improper closing of the heart valves.
That’s why, in all likelihood, Dr. Dao Fei didn’t succumb to one isolated incident, but rather, his heart failure was a culmination of an already unhealthy set of factors. With such a challenging job as his, sleep deprivation had likely become a lifestyle. Unfortunately, the same can be said of many adults today.
Sleep Deprivation Causes Severe Health Issues
While it’s easy to think of taking breaks as only a mental health issue, the risks of being overworked are holistic and extend into all aspects of your health. A 2010 research study led by Anoop Shankar, Shirmila Syamala, and Sita Kalidindi of West Virginia University School of Medicine found significant risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity from getting insufficient sleep. The study surveyed American adults, asking them to rate their sleeping habits over the past 30 days. The more days people reported feeling under-rested, the higher the association heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. (2)
Undoubtedly, a lifestyle of chronic sleep deprivation poses a serious threat to overall health. But even acute (short term) sleep deprivation affords its own risks. Unfortunately, that translates to a lot of sleep deprived people. The National Lung, Heart, and Blood Institute reports:
“As part of a health survey for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7–19 percent of adults in the United States reported not getting enough rest or sleep every day.
Nearly 40 percent of adults report falling asleep during the day without meaning to at least once a month. Also, an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic (ongoing) sleep disorders.” (3)
How Much Sleep Should You Be Getting?
The above table illustrates the recommendations of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for average sleep requirements according to age. In addition to keeping track of the numbers, you should watch out for the signs of sleep deprivation, which include:
Feeling sleepy whenever you relax (are you always falling asleep in front of the TV?)
Slow reaction times (do you keep dropping things?)
Unexplained mood swings
Muscle fatigue or soreness
It may be unlikely that you would ever be subjected to the degree of sleep deprivation that Dr. Taofik experienced, but feeling unrested even a few days every month can start to take a toll on your health.