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One of my friends works on rotational shifts (if she works a week during the day, another week she needs to work during the night). Her sleeping cycles are changing continuously. Will this cause any health problem in the near future? Are there any long term health problems that can occur associated with this?

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It is difficult to know if your friend will experience adverse health affects associated with shift work, as everyone has different levels of tolerance for the effects of shift work. Shift work however has been shown to increase the risk of some adverse health effects. The following is a list of adverse health effects that have are commonly associated with those working shift work or working long hours:

  1. Sleep

Scientific publications on the topic generally agree that working shift work or working long hours has adverse affects on sleep (1). In particular the quantity of sleep may be reduced by up to 2 hours per day, with a reduction in REM and stage 2 sleep.

  1. Fatigue

It is logical that decreased sleep will also lead to increased levels of fatigue. Reports of fatigue among shift workers is very common, and remains an important, but vague symptom often a major cause of shift work intolerance.

  1. Mental Health

There have been reports of increased anxiety and depression among shift workers. The question of whether shift work causes increased psychiatric morbidity however is still an open question, as correlation doesn't always imply causation.

  1. Cardiovascular Disorders

Scandinavian studies show that shift workers have a 40% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including angina, hypertension and myocardial infarction. It is thought this increase risk may be associated with disturbances in the circadian rhythm, increased stress, poor diet and lack of exercise.

  1. Reproductive Disorders

There is increasing evidence that shift work may lead to increased risk of spontaneous abortion, low birth weight and prematurity.

The risks of developing any of these adverse health affects from shift work may also depend on age, sex and personality. Evidence shows older people are able to tolerate shift work less than younger people.

References:

  1. Harrington, J. Malcolm. "Health effects of shift work and extended hours of work." Occupational and Environmental medicine 58.1 (2001): 68-72.

  2. Akerstedt T. Psychological and psychophysiological effects of shiftwork. Scand J Work Environ Health 1990:16(suppl 1):67–73.

  3. Boggild H, Knuttson A. Shift work, risk factors and cardiovascular disease. Scand J Work Environ Health 1999;25:85–99.

  4. Spurgeon A. Working time, occupational health and safety. Geneva: ILO (in press)

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