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Shift Work Prematurely Ages the Brain, Study Finds

Our parents used to tell us that watching too much television would ‘rot’ our brains. Now, a new report suggests that shift work can have the same effect.

Researchers at the University of Swansea and the University of Toulouse recently examined how shift work affects the brain, with a specific focus on the organ’s development. The researchers, who recently published their findings in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that people who engaged in ‘antisocial’ shifts — such as the overnight shift — experienced prematuring aging of the brain. This resulted in reduced intellectual ability — in essence, it made people less capable of making informed decisions.

The researchers believe the issue may be related to the body’s internal clock, which wants us to be active during the day and sleeping at night. Switching that situation around through shift work messes with the internal clock; it’s a change our brains struggle to accommodate.

The finding is based on tests of three thousand people in France who performed memory and cognitive ability tests. The researchers found that those people engaged in shift work for a decade or more performed the tests the same as those people who were six and a half years older.

There is good news, however: people who quit shift work were able to recover the brain functionality appropriate for their age. However, in some cases it took five years for this recovery process to complete.

The researchers believe their findings could help in the study of dementia, which is often associated with abnormal sleeping patterns. “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,” notes Dr. Michael Hastings of the UK Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

“In nursing homes one thing you can do to help is to set a very clear daily routine to encourage a sensible 24-hour pattern of activity; it needs bright lights in the day, resting at night and appropriate medication such as melatonin before bed.”


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