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by Kim Painter
Updated August 19, 2022
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, there’s a gender gap. Women of all ages report more symptoms of insomnia — such as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling rested during the day — than men do, a report from the Society for Women’s Health Research found. And while men may be less likely to complain about their sleep woes, there’s plenty of reasons why women may suffer from poorer sleep, says Phyllis Zee, director of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University, Chicago.
‘’I don’t think we know definitively why, but it could be related to menstrual cycles, pregnancies, and hormonal and other changes in physiology around menopause,” she says. And women frequently fill more roles than men: “They are caregivers at almost every stage of their lives,” assisting children, aging parents, spouses and partners, she adds.
Many women are aware of the immediate price they pay for nights of lost sleep, from grogginess to irritability. But years of poor sleep can impact brain health. Sleep deprivation impairs attention, memory and executive function, and increases cognitive complaints in middle-aged adults, according to the Global Council of Brain Health. Sleeping well through the life span is likely to promote better cognitive functioning with age, the council says.
Studies that focus on the fragmented sleep associated with insomnia show that it’s linked with faster cognitive decline. It’s also a risk factor for stroke and depression, the council says. Researchers have also learned that obstructive sleep apnea — a problem most common in older men — is an under-recognized and undertreated problem in women, says Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona, Tucson. People with sleep apnea have trouble maintaining open airways as they sleep, leading to interrupted breathing during the night. Common symptoms include snoring, gasping for breath, and fatigue. When the condition goes untreated, the short-term effects can be “profound,” Grandner says, and can include problems with thinking, memory and focus — and even an increase in car accidents.
“In the longer term, it does seem to increase the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia,” he says. Early diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea, especially in midlife, “could make a huge difference” over time, Grandner says.
How can women protect their sleep and brain health? Sleep experts suggest:
The good news: If you’re struggling with sleep, you’re not destined to spend decades staring at the ceiling. “It’s probably going to get better,” Grandner says, “and if it doesn’t, it’s probably a condition that’s highly treatable.”
• "Gender Difference in the Prevalence of Insomnia: A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies." Frontiers in Psychiatry, November 2020. In this review of research, researchers looked at 13 studies and found evidence that insomnia is more prevalent in women than in men. Read the full study.
• "Association between insomnia disorder and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults: a cross-sectional analysis of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging," Sleep, August 2019. In this study, researchers examined data from more than 28,000 adults 45 and older who completed questionnaires, physical examinations and neuropsychological testing. The researchers found an association between insomnia and an increased risk of depression and cognitive decline, among other health problems. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Insomnia Subtypes and the Subsequent Risks of Stroke: Report From a Nationally Representative Cohort," Stroke, April 2014. In this study, researchers compared data from 21,438 adults with insomnia and 64,314 adults who did not have insomnia and found that those with insomnia had a 54 percent higher risk of having a stroke. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Women: Specific Issues and Interventions," BioMed Research International, September 2016. This scientific paper explores the "gender-related differences in the symptoms, diagnosis, consequences, and treatment" of obstructive sleep apnea. Read the full study.
Correct! Learn ways to calm an anxious mind.
Incorrect. Women have a biological need for about 20 more minutes a night than men.