Healthy Monday: Night Shift Workers face a Higher Risk of Cancer & Heart Disease, according to Harvard Study! Blog

Healthy Monday: Night Shift Workers face a Higher Risk of Cancer & Heart Disease, according to Harvard Study!

“Healthy Monday is our way of kicking off the week with useful health tips, information or news put together by our team of Health Consultants.”

Working in certain professions, such as the medical field, transportation, hospitality (hotels) etc. predisposes people to working late nights, not necessarily because they want to, but because, that just comes with the job. However, it seems like those late night jobs may however have a detrimental health impact than previously thought.

In a recent study performed at the citadel of knowledge, Harvard University, and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 75,000 female registered nurses were tracked over several decades by monitoring the women’s weight, lifestyles, diets and other factors as well as their causes of death . The results found indicated that working night shifts may increase a woman’s risk of dying from certain types of cancer or heart disease. The researchers believe that the body’s circadian “clock” system influences many aspects of our health, and the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin is thought to have antitumor effects. Therefore, a plausible reason why working night shift hours may have several negative health impacts on the body is most likely because it leads to a disruption of melatonin during the night, while also disturbing systems that control heart rate, inflammation and metabolism of blood sugar and fats.

The results further showed that women who had rotating night shifts for at least six years or longer had a 19-23 percent more likely chance of dying from cardiovascular disease and 11 percent more likely to die of any cause than those with little or no night-shift work. Women with 15 years or more on rotating night shifts also had a 25 percent increased risk of lung cancer death. One limitation of the study pointed out was that all the nurses were married, so the results might not be applicable to younger, single women.

“I think the important message in this study is really the longer you work rotating night shifts in your career, your risks for developing cardiovascular disease or cancer increase,” said Carol Landis, a sleep and health expert at the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle. “If you think about it, it’s really minimal exposure (only three or more rotating shifts in a month),” said Landis, who was not involved in the study.


Results from past research had also tied working late-night hours to increased risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The authors of the new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also pointed out the observed connections between night shifts and high blood pressure, sleep problems, chronic fatigue, and excess weight.

“I became interested in studying the health impact of night work on health during my residency and clinical fellowship, when I began to suffer from near-to-constant sleep deprivation and feeling jet-lagged,” said Dr. Eva Schernhammer, the study’s senior author from Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Simultaneously, I observed the many different health issues my colleagues who worked rotating night shifts had to cope with.”

Schernhammer’s team used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, and their analysis included approximately 75,000 female registered nurses in . The researchers followed the women from 1988 to 2010, at which point 14,181 women had died. The team then reviewed the women’s weight, diets, lifestyles and other factors as well as their causes of death.

Overall, the results indicated that women who worked rotating night shifts for longer periods were older (mean age 66) and heavier, but more physically active than others. They were also more likely to smoke and less likely to take postmenopausal hormones or multivitamins. They also tended to drink less alcohol and eat less daily cereal fiber and were more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Among women who had done 15 or more years of night shifts at least 3 nights on a monthly basis, there were 1,430 deaths, 364 from cardiovascular disease and 506 from cancers (150 from lung cancer).
“We examined overall mortality in these women, and observed significantly higher overall mortality, as well as higher mortality from cardiovascular disease in women with several years of rotating night shift work, compared to nurses who had never worked night shifts,” Schernhammer said.

Since working night shifts comes with certain jobs and there might really be nothing one can do about it right away, the advise to those affected in order to maintain a better health is to eat a nutritional diet high in fiber, reduce light exposure when they get off work  in the morning. “So if they wear dark glasses, even if the sun is not out, if they take melatonin, that’s shown to be very good for helping night shift workers to sleep during the day . . . they should really follow a very specific schedule and probably better to not go to sleep right away and be sure to get at least six to eight hours of sleep,” Landis said.


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