Night shift workers are at higher risk of developing irregular, and often abnormally fast heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AF), according to research published in the European Heart Journal.
The study is the first to investigate links between night shift work and AF.
Using information from 283,657 people in the UK Biobank database, researchers found that the longer and more frequently that people worked night shifts over their lifetimes, the greater their risk of AF. Night shift work was also linked to an increased risk of heart disease, but not to stroke or heart failure.
In addition, the researchers, led by Professor Yingli Lu, of Shanghai Ninth People’s Hospital and Shanghai JiaoTong University School of Medicine, Shanghai, China, and Professor Lu Qi, of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, USA, investigated whether genetic predisposition to AF could play a role in the increased risk.
They evaluated the overall genetic risk but found that these levels did not affect the link between working night shifts and AF risk.
Professor Lu said: “Although a study like this cannot show a causal link between night shifts and atrial fibrillation and heart disease, our results suggest that current and lifetime night shift work may increase the risk of these conditions.
The study included 286,353 people who were in paid employment or self-employed. A total of 283,657 of these participants did not have AF when they enrolled in UK Biobank, and 276,009 did not have heart failure or stroke.
Information on genetic variants was available for 193,819 participants without AF, and 75,391 of them answered in-depth questions about their lifetime employment in a questionnaire sent out in 2015.
Among the participants free of heart disease and stroke when they joined the study, 73,986 provided information on their employment history. During an average follow-up time of over ten years, there were 5,777 AF cases.
They found that people who currently worked night shifts on a usual or permanent basis had a 12 percent increased risk of AF compared to people who only worked during the day. The risk increased to 18 percent after ten or more years for those who had a lifetime duration of night shifts. Among people who worked an average of three to eight night shifts a month for ten years or more, the risk of AF increased to 22 percent compared to daytime workers.
Among participants currently working night shifts, or working night shifts for ten or more years, or working a lifetime of three to eight night shifts a month, the risk of coronary heart disease increased by 22 percent, 37 percent and 35 percent respectively compared to daytime workers.
It is the first study to link these data with genetic information in a population that also has detailed histories available on current shift work and lifetime employment.
Professor Lu said: “We plan to analyze the association between night shift work and atrial fibrillation in different groups of people. This may strengthen the reliability of these results and serve as a warning to groups working in certain types of occupations to get their hearts checked early if they feel any pain or discomfort in their chests.”