Setting an alarm clock may help you get up in the morning, but the growing pressure to work long days, well into the night, or be available to your boss or coworkers 24-7 may be putting your health at risk, experts say.
Scientists have long known that we all have internal biological clocks that regulate our physical and mental health over a 24-hour cycle. These are called circadian rhythms and change as we age. This means that the work schedules we handle with aplomb in our 20s may not be as easy for us when we reach middle age and beyond.
Experts note that poor or inadequate sleep — sometimes tied to growing work-related stresses and pressures — is associated with a host of life-threatening health problems. Among them: Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, dementia, and even certain forms of cancer.
“One of the biggest problems people often make in today’s society is create shift work through cell phones and the Internet so that they are really working close to 24-7 these days,” says Dr. Matthew J. Edlund, a Sarasota-based psychiatrist who authored “The Body Clock Advantage.”
Edlund tells Newsmax Health that this is okay if you can fit the shifts into your “morning lark or night owl” preferences, but it can wreak havoc with your health if you are constantly fighting your body’s natural time clock.
“Countries like Scandinavia and Finland have instituted strict work-hour rules and stricter reinforcement to ensure that workers have enough time to rejuvenate and recover,” he notes. “The total hours of work in America may not be going up but they are spreading more through the 24-hour day.”
So what can you do about it? Experts advise trying to set aside regular non-work hours – including adequate time for sleep — and that may mean negotiating with your boss about how to handle after-hours emails, phone-calls, or work-related communications.
It’s also a good idea to know how your biological clock may change as you age age. Here are some schedules that research shows may be best for each age group.
Teens and young adults. The human brain may not grow out of adolescence until the mid- to late 20s, Dr. Jess Shatkin, a psychiatrist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center tells Newsmax Health.
“Adolescents have this desire to go to bed later and wake up later and that’s what most people do until they are 26,” he says. “Adolescents start to release the sleep hormone melatonin later in the day than most adults and that could be around 10 o’clock at night. Therefore they go to bed later and lake up later.”
Shatkin says that ideally, this group should begin work at 10 a.m. and let their schedules go later.
Adults in their 30s and 40s. For most adults in their 30s and 40s, research shows that their ideal schedules should mirror their personal preferences. You are either a lark, or an early riser, says Edlund, or a night owl. These preferences may be linked to your genes. But whether you are a morning person or a night person, it’s important to keep a regular work schedule and avoid overnight shift work.
Shift work can impair not only your body but also your brain, says Christian Benedict, a researcher at Uppsala University’s department of neuroscience in Sweden. In a recent study, he found shift workers and those who worked irregular shifts for the past five years scored poorly on cognitive tests.
He also discovered that it took the irregular workers five years to improve cognitive performance when they resumed regular, steady work hours. He speculated that since shift workers often don’t get enough sleep, their brains may not effectively remove cellular waste that builds up in the organ.
Adults in their 40s, 50s, and older. Research recently published in the Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series suggests that a three-day workweek would be best for adults 40 and older.
Working more or less than 25 hours a week could have negative impact on cognitive functioning according to Professor Shinya Kajitani, of Meisel University in Japan, who co-authored the study.
But even though that’s not practical for most full-time workers, it’s important to limit your work day — as best you can — to about eight hours, experts say.
“Work can stimulate brain activity, but longer working hours are more likely to cause physical and/or mental stress,” says Kajitani.
“The point we are making in our study is that work can stimulate brain activity and can help maintain cognitive function for elderly workers, but at the same time, excessively long working hours can cause fatigue and physiological stress that can potentially damage cognitive functioning.”
In general, studies have shown that women who work an average of 60 hours or more weekly may triple their risk of developing diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
And a 2015 study published in The Lancet found that working more than 55 hours per week may be linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in men and women alike.
“Lots of people work too many hours today,” noted Edlund. “If you can control the number of hours you work, that’s great. But if you can’t, make sure that you protect sleep time and set up a strategic naps. Lastly, learn quick rest and relaxation techniques you can use to refresh and change gears.”
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