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Increased Risk of Stroke and Heart Attack in Workers with Irregular Schedules (November 28, 2012)

Working the Late Shift Could Be Deadly

For many workers on holiday work schedules, overnight shifts, swing shifts and other irregular work schedules, getting enough rest and living a healthy lifestyle can be difficult. New research suggests that in addition to increasing worker discomfort and inconvenience, however, it can also be dangerous. People who work these irregular schedules have a greatly increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other negative health indicators, which could lead to more heart attacks and strokes. Convenient lab tests such as a Lipid Profile, hs-CRP, Diabetes screening, or Anemia Panel can help determine your specific health risks.  You can also turn to online resources such as WebMd to research signs of a stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

The Science

According to a large-scale study published in the British Medical Journal, people who work the graveyard shift, as well as workers who have split shifts and unreliable schedules, suffer from an increased risk of vascular disease, as well as previously-known health indicators like diabetes. This study looked at 34 previous studies including a total population of more than two million people working non-standard schedules.

Shift workers had an almost 25 percent greater risk of heart attack than those on conventional daytime work schedules and a five percent increase in the risk of stroke. These factors were worse in people who worked the overnight shift. Unfortunately, most workers in shift jobs don't have a lot of say in the hours they work and may not be aware of the potential risks.

Reasons for Risk

The shifts themselves may not be the direct cause of these health problems, of course. Many outside factors associated with shift work are much more likely to be the culprits. For instance, most people who work overnight shifts have trouble getting enough sleep at the right time. Their sleeping hours are interrupted by light, phone calls, road construction and other daytime noises.

Many people on these shifts also have trouble getting an adequate diet since their hours conflict with normal mealtimes. They end up eating large amounts of unhealthy convenience foods instead. A large percentage of overnight and split shift workers also have trouble getting enough physical activity, which is one of the biggest risk factors for poor health.

In addition, most shift work jobs are also lower status. That means that they tend to pay less and offer considerably fewer benefits than jobs scheduled on a normal 9 to 5 schedule. According to a professor of medicine at Northwestern University, this could lead to increased health risks, too. Lower income and a restricted schedule means reduced access to health care, especially preventive care, which can increase the chance of cardiovascular disease.

Shifts Partially Responsible

Researchers did note that even when they accounted for the above factors, shift workers still had a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes than those who worked standard hours. One possibility is the fact that shift work tends to disrupt the body's natural circadian rhythm, something that can have an effect on a person's blood pressure and heart rate. There is, unfortunately, little that workers can do to prevent this.

Ways to Prevent Health Problems

Since almost a third of the population's workers are stuck in shift work or other unusual schedules, quitting and getting a daytime job isn't usually an option. Instead, researchers recommend that people in these situations pay extra attention to other health factors. They should get regular exercise and maintain the highest level of physical fitness possible. Whenever possible, they need to consume a healthy diet and work to get regular sleep.

Cardiac testing and treatments are also important for shift workers, who may get more benefit from them than daytime workers. People who work split shifts, overnights and other unconventional work schedules need to pay close attention to any treatments they may be receiving for weight loss, blood pressure control, or high cholesterol. They also need to have these factors tested regularly. By monitoring the major indicators for heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, they can reduce the risk of death or serious health problems related to their work.