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Shift workers seriously lagging in mental and physical health

We’ve all heard talk about the ‘body clock’, usually from annoying people go to bed at 10 o’clock each evening, sleep within seconds of hitting the pillow and don’t wake up until precisely when they want to without even needing an alarm.

You’re perfectly entitled to detest these paragons and shun their company, as all civilised people should; but it is a thing, this body clock, and medicine calls it the circadian rhythm.

It is the ebb and flow of energy, the peaks and troughs of moods, the time the body takes to process its way through the physical needs of the day.

It works at its best when we are creatures of habit, sleeping and eating at the same times daily, using our physical and mental energy at similar times and levels each day.

This rhythm, also responds to our environment at any given time; day and night, warm or cold weather, tranquillity or chaos around us.

It is the perfect model, in fact, for the nine-to-fiver making the same journey to the same place of work to perform the same tasks each day.

Of course there are many of us who are anything but habitual in our daily lives and many for whom disruption is simply part of the job description.

Shift workers are among those worst affected by an ever changing schedule.

Many studies have shown that long term shift workers can suffer an almost permanent ‘jet-lag’ effect in which their circadian rhythm never quite matches their immediate physical needs.

This has been linked to a raft of health issues such as blood pressure, cardio vascular anomalies, stress and anxiety symptoms and even some cancers – though no direct causal link has ever been clinically proven between the disease and working hours.

Now a French study has highlighted a similarly debilitating effect on higher brain functions such as memory and reasoning.

Researchers from the University of Toulouse have analysed and tested the memories and cognitive skills of 3,000 French workers, comparing those who worked regular hours with those on shift working, particularly those on rotating shifts.

The regular workers performed at a consistently higher level in direct comparisons to shift workers, enough for the analysts to extrapolate a deterioration in the brain functions tested of an extra six and a half years of natural ageing for every decade working in shifts.

That would mean that a 30 year old entering shift work would, by the time they reached 40, only be able to achieve the mental agility and memory skills of an average 46 year old.

By 50, if still on shift work, they would have the cognitive age of 63.

This has serious implications for all shift workers but particularly those, like health professionals, security and emergency services personnel, whose job functions rely heavily on speed of response and mental acumen.

The researchers, looking at the smaller group of 1,200 over a ten year period from 1996 to 2006, did find that the effect was reversible but that it took five years out of shift work before the worker regained their full faculties.


Sources: Irish Indepedent et al.
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