The Ramones sang, “This is the job that ate my brain.” At some point, nearly everyone has felt that their work is getting to them physically and mentally. For people who work various shifts, however, it is true that their work, or at least the hours being worked, may drain their brain and impact their mental acuity for years
Scientists have actually shown that working non-standard hours or rotating shifts for years is hard on the body and mind, according to new research. In fact, they have found that working “shift work” for 10 years or more creates the same decline in thinking skills and memory as aging another 6.5 years. If people stop working odd hours and shifts that impact their body clock, they do recover somewhat. But, the research shows it can take five years to get back to normal.
National Center for Scientific Researchers at the University of Toulouse, France, tracked the mental abilities of over 3,000 workers from different regions in the country who were currently employed in or retired from a wide range of sectors. The research team evaluated the participants three times over 10 years (in 1996, 2001 and again in 2006) to better ascertain possible effective over longer period of time.
The men and women who participated were all either 32, 42, 52 or 62 when first tested. Their memory was gauged, so was their speed in processing information and overall thinking ability. Half of the participants were employed in shift work for at least 50 days per year, with the rest of the time employed in a normal standardized workday. Over 1,000 participants had worked shifts all over the clock, switching back and forth from days, nights and evenings throughout the period.
Lower memory, reduced processing speed and slower thinking ability was found for those who worked staggered shifts versus those who mainly worked standard hours. For the workers who had varying shifts for the whole 10-year period, their mental acuity was even lower than those who only did so occasionally. The scientists did note that the differences were not dramatic, but they were evident and measureable.
The research, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, establishes the association between impairments in cognition and memory with shift work. The study does not prove causation. However, scientists have long theorized that shift work, which disturbs normal day and night cycles, causes stress on brain functioning. In addition, those who work at night and sleep by day have less exposure to sunlight resulting in a potential vitamin D deficiency, which can also impact mental abilities.
The damage inflicted on the body by working evenings or nights does not just involve mental decline. Studies also show an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, obesity and breast cancer for those people.
One theory on why those with varying schedules have a noticeable decline in mental acuity and increased health risk over time deals with sleep. Those who keep inconsistent schedules often do not get enough sleep, which takes a toll. So, shift work combined with lack of adequate rest really may drain the brain.
By Dyanne Weiss