Study reveals anti-social working hours can damage the brain

Friday 7 November 2014

Sole traders and limited company contractors should be aware of the risks associated with working anti-social hours, as a new study has revealed the practice could be damaging to one’s health.

Researchers at the University of Swansea and the University of Toulouse have published a report in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which suggests our body’s internal clock is programmed to work in the day and sleep at night.

Going against this pattern could have dramatic effects when it comes to brain function, with obesity and breast cancer also a risk.

However, it may be more of a problem for workers who take on shifts in anti-social hours, rather than those who occasionally burn the midnight oil, such as self-employed professionals.

Of course, workers tend to embrace freelance working and contracting as a means to achieve a better work/life balance. While shift work is avoided by many, the possibility of working late is perhaps more likely.

According to the research, those who work shifts in anti-social hours for a decade could see their brain function age by six years. However, it was noted that this could be recovered once people stop working shifts, but it takes five years to the brain to return to state that is close to normal.

The study was conducted in France, examining 3,000 people. Memory tests were carried out, as well as experiments to examine speed of thought and wider cognitive ability. It was revealed that those who had been doing shift work for more than ten years had similar results to those who didn’t and were six and a half years older.

Although it is understood that the brain does decline with age, it is believed shift work speeds up the process. For freelancers and contractors, it’s just another reason to avoid the nine-to-five.

Dr Michael Hastings of the UK Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology said the “reversibility” findings were perhaps some of the most crucial.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Hastings revealed that this could be key when it comes to studies concerning dementia, as many of those who suffer from the disease have trouble maintaining sleep patterns.

He also offered some recommendations for those who do have to work anti-social hours, such as those in the healthcare profession.

Setting a clear and manageable routine will help to reverse the negative impact on your brain, he suggested. A solid 24-hour schedule that includes bright lights in the day, as much rest as possible at night and medication, such as melatonin, before sleep, could help to maintain your cognitive health.

"If you can keep the sleep-wake cycle as solid as possible you're unlikely to reverse neurodegeneration, but you can ameliorate one of the consequences,” Dr Hastings noted.

Contractors, freelancers and sole traders might see their work pattern changing often, which could be detrimental to an effective daily schedule. Setting specific working hours, rest periods and even a meal schedule could help to keep your body and health regulated.

As researcher Dr Phillip Tucker noted, per the BBC, night shifts are a “necessary evil” which play a vital role in modern society, but designing a strict working schedule can help to reduce the negative impact on the brain and cognitive functions. He also recommended regular medical checks featuring cognitive performance tests.


By Victoria McDonnell

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