Night shift nurses have long known their schedules can cause health problems, but a recently published study offers hope that the impact isn’t forever.

In April, “The Association Between Rotating Night Shift Work and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease Among Women,” confirmed the risk between heart disease and shift work, but noted when you stop night shift work, the risk for coronary heart disease decreases.

The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, evaluated the work and lifestyle habits of more than 189,000 healthy nurses who participated in the Nurses Health Studies. Lead by Celine Vetter, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School the study looked at their rotating night shift work in 1988 and 1989 and evaluated the findings with their body weight, physical activity, diet quality, and whether or not they smoked.

According to the report, the longer the nurses worked a rotating night shift, the higher the risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers noted up to an 18 percent increase over women who didn’t work a night shift if the shift work lasted more than 10 years. The nurses who reported the rotating shifts worked at least three night shifts over the course of a month in addition to other day and evening shifts.

In a video reporting her findings, Vetter noted one finding that was significant enough to warrant more studies. Even if nurses worked many years of rotating shift work, thereby upping their risk of disease, the findings showed that when the rotating shift work stopped, the risk started to decrease. The longer the time passed from when the night shift ended, the greater the decrease in risk.

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The finding itself is worth looking into, says Vetter, to see if any other other factors could contribute to the decrease or not.

Overall, the findings show that rotating night shift work causes enough of a disruption to cause a small, but statistically significant, increase in coronary heart disease. And while there were nearly 11,000 cases of coronary heart disease recorded, that still means that 178,000 nurses didn’t have that correlation.

If you work a rotating night shift (and even if you don’t), it’s a good idea to take special care of yourself with heart-healthy habits. Get enough exercise for stress reduction, heart health, and weight control. Eat a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and keep the saturated fat to a minimum. Get enough rest (even if you have to fit in a nap or two in your crazy schedule) and don’t smoke. And be heartened that even as your risk is increased the longer your rotating shifts go on, that same risk also decreases during the years after you return to a regular schedule.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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