This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.

No matter your age you should be following mom’s good advice: Go to bed at a regular time. New research from Duke University finds that people who do not follow a regular sleep schedule weigh more and are less healthy.

“Almost every aspect of how we function during the day — our ability to think clearly, problem-solve and pay attention, our mood and energy levels, and our physical and mental health — is related to how we sleep at night,” said Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke and the study’s lead author.

About the study

The proven benefits of getting a good night’s sleep don’t just come from logging the recommended seven or eight hours a night. Regular sleep and wake times are important for heart and metabolic health among older adults.

In a study of 1,978 older adults, researchers at Duke Health and the Duke Clinical Research Institute found that people with irregular sleep patterns weighed more and had higher blood sugar levels, blood pressure and projected risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years than those who slept and woke at the same times every day.

“We have known for some time that getting enough sleep is important to many aspects of human health. What was novel and interesting in our study is that sleep regularity — sleeping and waking at the same times daily — was even more strongly associated with heart and metabolic risk factors than the length of sleep in this group of individuals,” Lunsford-Avery said.

“Sleep regularity was also unrelated to how long you sleep, meaning that even if you are getting enough sleep but at irregular times, you may still be at risk for these illnesses.”

The findings show an association between sleep regularity and heart and metabolic health — not a cause-and-effect relationship. It can’t be concluded that sleep irregularity results in health risks or whether health conditions affect sleep, Lunsford-Avery said. Perhaps they affect each other, she said.

Irregular sleepers were also more likely to report depression and stress than regular sleepers.

Advice

If you’re an irregular sleeper, Lunsford-Avery’s advice is pretty clear-cut.

“Increasing the regularity of your sleep is actually relatively straightforward. Much of the health advice that we give our patients — get more exercise, find more hours in the day to sleep, change your diet — these things are very important of course, but may be difficult to do,” she said. “Set your alarm clock to rise at the same time, even on weekends. Setting a regular bedtime — and sticking to it as best you can — is likely to be beneficial for your health as well.” Use a sleep tracker to help build better sleep habits.

Because of our internal circadian clock, our bodies biologically crave regular sleep.

“When this clock isn’t functioning well, you are likely to experience more sleep problems, fatigue, cognitive difficulties and health risks,” Lunsford-Avery said.

It can be difficult to prioritize sleep.

“However, getting enough sleep and at regular times is likely to have a large impact on your overall health and ability to function optimally during the day,” Lunsford-Avery said.