Hospital nurses working the late shift may have a greater risk of developing heart disease because of the strain placed on the heart from working at night when it would otherwise be resting, according to a new study published in the American Heart Association’s Journal Circulation. This makes it particularly dangerous for minority nurses to work the night shift because coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability among racial and ethnic minority groups.

Italian researchers at the University of Milan discovered that while artificial lighting and alarm clocks may fool the mind into thinking night is day, other organs, like the heart, do not respond well to working during hours in which they would typically be resting.

Dr. Raffaello Furlan, who led the study, says, “We know that habitual [night] work may stress the heart. [Occurrences of] cardiovascular diseases are increased among [night workers].”

The study found that nerve and chemical messages that control the heart’s activity follow a 24-hour pattern that disregards changes in daily sleep patterns. Therefore, levels of cortisol, a hormone that stimulates the heart rate, digestive system, breathing and other functions during the day, does not adjust to help night workers stay awake and alert. This could mean that the heart is more likely to suffer strain because it is unprepared for the stress it will encounter during a night work shift.

“The resistance of the body’s internal clock to change with varied work schedules indicates that people don’t adapt as easily as we think to [night] work, and could explain why [night] workers are at higher risk,” Furlan explains.

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