Research shows long term shift work linked to impaired brain power

Long term shift work could be linked to impaired brain power, according to a study carried out by scientists from Swansea University and other renowned European Universities.

Shift work, like chronic jet lag, is known to disrupt the body’s internal clock and it has been linked to a range of health problems, such as ulcers, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and some cancers.

But little is known about its potential impact on brain functions, such as memory and processing speed.

The study published in ‘Occupational & Environmental Medicine’ suggest that the impact seems to be most noticeable over a period of 10 or more years, and although the effects can be reversed, this may take at least five years.

Dr Philip Tucker, Professor of Psychology, Swansea University said: “The study shows the long term effects of shift work on the body clock are not only harmful to workers’ physical health, but also affect their mental abilities. Such cognitive impairments may have consequences for the safety of shift workers and the society that they serve, as well as for shift workers’ quality of life.”  

The researchers tracked the cognitive abilities of more than 3000 people who were either working in a wide range of sectors or who had retired, at three time points: 1996; 2001; and 2006.

Just under half (1484) of the sample, which was drawn from the patient lists of three occupational health doctors in three different regions in southern France, had worked shifts for at least 50 days of the year.

Participants were aged exactly 32, 42, 52 and 62 at the time of the first set of tests, which aimed to assess long and short term memory; processing speed; and overall  (global) cognitive abilities. In all, 1197 people were assessed at all three time points.

Around one in five of those in work (18.5%) and a similar proportion of those who had retired (17.9%) had worked a shift pattern that rotated between mornings, afternoons, and nights.

The first set of analyses looked at whether any abnormal working hours were associated with a decline in cognitive abilities.

The data showed that those who currently or who had previously worked shifts had lower scores on memory, processing speed, and overall brain power than those who had never worked shifts.

The second set of analyses looked at the impact of working a rotating shift pattern and found that compared with those who had never worked rotating shifts, those who had,  and had done so for 10 or more years, had lower global cognitive and memory scores—equivalent to 6.5 years of age related cognitive decline.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether stopping shift work was linked to a recovery in cognitive abilities. The results indicated that it was possible to regain cognitive abilities after stopping shift work, but that this took at least five years, processing speeds excepted.

This is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, but the disruption of the body clock could generate physiological stressors, which may in turn affect the functioning of the brain, say the researchers.

Other research has also linked vitamin D deficiency as a result of reduced exposure to daylight, to poorer cognition, they point out.

“The cognitive impairment observed in the present study may have important safety consequences not only for the individuals concerned, but also for society as a whole, given the increasing number of jobs in high hazard situations that are performed at night,” warn the researchers.

At the very least their findings suggest that monitoring the health of people who have worked shift patterns for 10 years, would be worth while, they caution.

The study Chronical Effects of Shift Work On Cognition: Findings From The Visat Longitudinal Study” when published can be found at

The authors of the study are:

  • Dr Jean-Claude Marquié , Research Director, CLLE (UMR5263), Université de Toulouse-CNRS, Toulouse, France.
  • Dr Philip Tucker , Department of Psychology, Swansea University, Swansea, and  Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Professor Simon Folkard, Department of Psychology, Swansea University, Swansea and Institut de Psychologie, Université Paris Descartes, Paris, France
  • Dr Catherine Gentil,, Département d'Epidémiologie et de Santé Publique (UMR1027), Université de Toulouse-Inserm, Toulouse, France.
  • Dr  David Ansiau, International University of Monaco, Principality of Monaco.

Occupational & Environmental Medicine is one of more than 50 specialist journals published by BMJ. The title has been adopted as the official journal of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of London.