Long-term shift work has an ageing effect on the brain that leads to an impaired ability to think and remember, according to a new study carried out on 3,000 workers who have done shift work for more than 10 years. Dr Philip Tucker, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, who was part of the team that conducted the study, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that test subjects showed a decline in cognitive performance (the brain’s processing ability) equivalent to an extra six-and-a-half years of ageing. Dr Tucker said that one theory behind the results was that disruption of the body clock has an impact on the “brain structure itself”.
Sleep deprivation and the negative effect on the brain’s ability to process information can be a potential safety issue both for the individual experiencing the conditions and for those they interact with e.g. other road users while they are driving home from work. Similarly, many well-known accidents, such as the one at Chernobyl, have been attributed to human error due to sleep deprivation. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/sleep-deprivation-accidents-disasters_n_4380349.html. Therefore, we all need to be aware of the vital role that sleep plays in preparing us for the day ahead.
The report detailed in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine explains that the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain can be reversed when an individual stops working shifts but the reversal takes a long time “The recovery of cognitive functioning after having left shift work took at least 5 years (reversibility)1” The Health & Safety Executive2 gives advice for shift workers on how to keep themselves and others safe, such as using public transport or sharing driving, developing a good sleep schedule and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Sleep advice for shift workers
It is incredibly important for shift workers to ensure their bedroom is conducive to sleep, which can be difficult if you’re trying to sleep during daylight hours. My advice to help you get a refreshing sleep, is to ensure that your bedroom is very dark so that it simulates night time and promotes the body’s production of melatonin, one of the hormones that regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycle; this can be achieved through blackout blinds and curtains but, if this isn’t possible, consider using an eye mask.
It’s also important to reduce the noise that you could be potentially exposed to by using ear plugs. More important still, leave your mobile phone turned off so that you’re not tempted to check for messages, since the light from the phone will disrupt your sleep cycle. (See also https://www.soothingspaces.co.uk/health/light-electronic-gadgets-interferes-sleep)
Additionally, you should adopt a wind down routine before you head off to bed: try a little exercise or some stretches followed by a warm milky drink. Temperature is important too, so make sure your room is at a temperature that is comfortable. Read my blog Sleep deprived? You May Be Too Hot or Too Cold for more information about this.
Are you a shift worker? How do you cope with the effects that shift working has on your mind and body?