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Shift Work Linked To Low Cognitive Functionality

There has long been a link between sleep and cognitive function, but recent research has found that shift work may actually lower your ability to think straight. This latest research which included shift and non-shift working men in mid-age or older, compared performance in a test offered through two Swedish universities. What they found was that the irregular sleep of shift workers impaired their cognitive function. Medical News Today writes: “The researchers analyzed data on around 7,000 men and women aged 45-75 years who are taking part in a large study looking at factors that affect the development of disease in the elderly in Sweden. The study investigated the link between self-reported shift-work history and performance on a neuropsychological test called the "trail making test," which is commonly used to assess executive cognitive function - a core brain function that is known to decline with age.

The test also showed that it could take as long as 5 years for the effects of shift work to leave the system, allowing for a regular progression of cognitive functionality to resume. This creates many questions regarding the safety of this overnight practice, and whether or not the human mind is capable of ongoing strain in this manner.

Training The Mind

Tests used to determine the link between shift and non-shift workers and their cognitive function included a number of tasks which should be considered easy for the average adult to complete. When faced with these moderate activities, shift workers sometimes struggled to make the right choice, or match the items as instructed. Sleep Review Magazine explains: “The poorer performance was only observed in current shift workers and those who worked shifts during the past 5 years. In contrast, no difference was observed between non-shift workers and those who had quit shift work more than 5 years ago.”

The results proved that there is a possibility to improve cognitive function by leaving shift work and retaining a regularly structured sleep pattern for five or more years. This is a boon to those who are currently working nights and wish to return to a traditional timing of employment.

Finding The Circadian Rhythm

One reason for this change in cognitive function when sleep is challenged is due to the disruption of what scientists refer to as, the circadian rhythm. This is a natural pattern through which the human body regulates homeostasis. It can encourage everything from cell growth to hormone production. When the pattern is thrown off by shift work, the body may begin skipping normal processes, or at least delaying them, which can have a negative effect. The Journal of Circadian Rhythms quotes doctor Philip Tucker of the College of Human and Health Sciences in saying: "Our analyses suggest that the effects could not be attributed to poorer sleep quality among shift workers, which we know from previous studies has acute (i.e., short-term) effects on performance, rather, it seems likely that our findings reflect the disruption of the shift workers' circadian rhythms, which has been shown by other researchers to have an impact on brain structures involved in cognition and mental health over the lifespan."

The circadian rhythm occurs over a period of 24 hours and affects not only humans, but plants and animals. It has accounted for the mental cloud that often covers those who haven’t gotten enough sleep the night before a big test, and for the inability to perform normal tasks when working a night shift rather than a day shift.

Shift Work In Medicine

These studies in circadian rhythm and shift work have offered room for growth, particularly in the area of health and wellness fields. Nurses and doctors see plenty of shift work, and the startling results offered by the latest tests prove that these individuals may see an inability to function as well as non-shift workers where cognitive abilities are put to work. This isn’t good news for the millions of men and women who seek medical attention daily. Josie Irwin, the women in charge of employment relations at the Royal College of Nursing has said: “This study is further evidence that staff need adequate breaks and preventive health checks. Nursing staff cannot avoid working shifts and their employers should do everything possible to protect them by minimising the risks to their health.”

Ms. Irwin’s suggestion for a more organized break schedule is warranted, but researchers have voiced their concern as to whether or not shift workers may need to undergo some form of full transition to their working lifestyle. Rather than trying to balance the shift of circadian rhythm one week and rectify it the next, there is always the prospect of one month on, one month off, or longer rotations which could help maintain regularity.

Unfortunately, with results indicating a five-year turnaround for effects of shit work to dissolve, this 30-days on, 30-days off rotation may be more of a bandage than a permanent solution. Research is continuing on the project, and the hope is to find a way to provide less irregularity in cognitive function for those who work overnight, compared to those who work during the day.

There will always be a calling for shift-workers, as there is no end to the need for medical attention and other employment during late night hours. The question remains as to whether scientists will be able to create a circadian rhythm aid, or other man-made method to control the effects of shift work.

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