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Working at Certain Times of the Day or Night Can Affect Memory, Research Says

New research says that shift work can disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to actively “aging" employees

Whether you work during the day or at night can impact your health almost as much as what you do, according to new research.

Shift work — where employees trade off night and day hours to ensure 24-hour coverage — can lead to "active aging" of the workforce and impair cognitive function and memory, according to research published by the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging.

People who worked night shifts were more likely to have “memory function impairment” than people who consistently worked during the day, the study found.

However, people who alternated between day and night shifts were the most likely to have impaired executive function — which the Mayo Clinic describes as “the mental processes needed to execute purposeful, goal-directed behavior," including basic functions such as “paying attention, concentrating, planning, self-monitoring, and adapting.”

<p>Getty</p> Shift work can disrupt the body's production of melatonin, which aids in sleep.

Getty

Shift work can disrupt the body's production of melatonin, which aids in sleep.

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The study’s authors point to a disruption in the body’s natural Circadian rhythm, which the CDC describes as the body’s 24-hour, internal clock, which “resets every day by the sun’s light/dark cycle.”

“There’s not just one system that is being impacted,” Dr. Durdana Khan, a doctoral scholar at York University in Canada, who led the new study, told Health. “It’s important to know this is a multifactorial issue.”

Part of the problem, said Khan, is the disruption of production of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in response to darkness.

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“Stress, sleep deprivation, and melatonin disruption all work on the brain,” said Khan, adding that instead of melatonin, inflammatory proteins will be produced in response to sleep deprivation; those, in turn, have “neurotoxic effects on brain cells, which can impair brain function.”

As Khan explained, “Shift workers are working when our bodies need rest. In scientific language, it’s called desynchronization of our body, there is an imbalance, and a lot of things are happening when there is imbalance in our body.”

And while people who consistently work nights may be able to adjust, Khan says, is rotating shift work can lead to more serious problems.

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“This rotating shift work is more disruptive to your body because you’re not giving your body a chance to adjust,” she told Health. “If you are doing regular night shifts, your body can adjust.”

Fields that commonly rely on shift work include the medical field, law enforcement, hospitality, and those who work in warehouses or in the security field.





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