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Sleep deprived? You may be at higher risk for a stroke

Recent research suggests those who are sleep deprived have a higher risk of stroke. (Thinkstock)Sleep. It's essential for weight loss — in part because sleep-deprived brains crave junk food. And it also boosts the immune system, wards off heart disease and slows down aging.

That is why a new study linking sleep deprivation with a higher risk of stroke shouldn't be too much of a surprise. The researchers suggest that individuals who habitually sleep less than six hours a night quadruple their risk of stroke symptoms in healthy, normal-weight adults 45 and over.

"The really important take-home message is this: Don't blow it off. Sleep is just as important as diet and exercise," says Megan Ruiter, the University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher who led the study.

Also see: The Smart Bed makes itself: A lazy gal's dream

The study was presented Monday at SLEEP 2012, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Boston.

Ruiter and her colleagues studied the data of 5,666 healthy individuals with no history of stroke or stroke symptoms, or elevated risk for sleep disorders. They found that those in normal-weight categories who slept less than six hours a night "were at about 4.5 times greater risk of developing stroke symptoms than whose who slept seven and eight hours a night."

"We speculate that short sleep duration is a precursor to other traditional stroke risk factors, and once these traditional stroke risk factors are present, then perhaps they become stronger risk factors than sleep duration alone," Ruiter says in a statement.

Also see: Sleep-deprived brains crave junk food the most: study

The increased risk was not apparent in overweight or obese people who slept less than six hours a night.

"Short sleep duration is already associated with cardiovascular death and other cardiovascular-related events. What is different with this study is that it specifically looked at people who are at a normal weight, which means they are less likely to have diabetes — which is a stroke risk factor — and found they are still at increased risk of stroke symptoms," Dr. Susan Harding, a sleep specialist from the university's Sleep/Wake Disorders Center, says at the conference.

One limitation of the study was that sleep duration was only self-reported. Ruiter acknowledges that more research is needed.

Watch the video below about what not to eat before bedtime.

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