BACKGROUND: There is evidence to suggest that insufficient sleep may have an adverse effect on physical and psychological health. Previous studies have reported that when adjusting for major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and a number of demographic and social variables, sleeping 7-8 h each night is associated with lower mortality. These studies, however, have excluded any consideration of stress, which is known to be related to a number of behavioural risk factors for disease and, like sleep, may influence neurochemical, hormonal and immunological functioning. METHODS: This study revisits the associations between sleep duration, cardiovascular disease risk factors and mortality, taking into account the perceived stress of individuals. The data come from a cohort of working Scottish men and women recruited between 1970 and 1973; approximately half of the cohort was screened for a second time, 4-7 years after the baseline examination. RESULTS: For both men and women, higher self-perceived stress was associated with a reduction in the hours of sleep reported. The pattern of mortality from all causes and the pattern of mortality from cardiovascular disease were consistent for both men and women. When sleep was measured on one occasion only, the risk of dying was reduced for men sleeping more than 8 h in every 24 h compared with those sleeping 7-8 h over the same period. This was after adjustment had been made for age, marital status, social class, cardiovascular risk factors and stress. The risk of dying was increased for women sleeping less than 7 h in every 24 h compared with those sleeping 7-8 h over the same period, after similar adjustments. When the data from the 1st and 2nd screening were considered longitudinally, both men and women who reported that they slept less than 7 h on both occasions that they were questioned, had a greater risk of dying from any cause than those who had reported sleeping 7-8 h at both screenings, after adjusting for age, marital status, social class and stress. CONCLUSIONS: Short sleep over a prolonged period may be associated with an increased risk of mortality: men and women who reported sleeping fewer than 7 h in 24 on two occasions between 4 and 7 years apart, had greater risk of dying from any cause over a 25 year period than those who reported sleeping 7-8 h on both occasions that they were questioned.