The Shift Work Disadvantage

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A new study from Uppsala University shows that compared to non-shift workers, shift workers have an increased tendency for cognitive impairment. However, those who had quit shift work more than five years ago showed no significant impairment in cognitive functions. The findings were published in the May edition of the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

Approximately 7000 individuals participated in the Swedish cohort study EpiHealth. Researchers from Uppsala University and Malmö University sought to examine whether shift work history could influence performance on the test. There were two parts to the test.

Part A requires participants to connect circles labeled with numbers 1-25 in an ascending order. In part B, participants must alternate between numbers and letters in an ascending order. Time to complete these tests has been shown to increase with age in other studies.

Those who have worked shift work within the past five years showed an increased tendency for cognitive impairment according to the results.

“Since short sleep has been associated with learning and memory impairments, it could therefore be hypothesized that short sleep duration, in combination with circadian disruption, may further restrain performance on the [test] in shift workers,” the researchers wrote in the study.

So what does this mean for us who work on the off-shifts? We are certainly at a disadvantage, however there are things we can do to counter the impact.

  • Get plenty of sleep. Sometimes it is just too easy to stay up after work when you should be getting rest.
  • Develop a schedule for sleep and stick to it.
  • Ensure your sleep environment is conducive to sleeping – dark, cool and quiet are a must.
  • Use a relaxing, non-stressful ritual prior to sleeping like reading, watching television or listening to music. However, stay away from platforms and programs that will catch your attention and get you involved and “thinking” about the program (talk radio, suspense movies, thrillers, etc).
  • Get plenty of exercise at any time of your day.
  • Watch what you eat towards the end of your day and prior to going to sleep. Also your liquid intake.
  • Watch your caffeine intake at all times.
  • Avoid naps at all costs.

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