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HomeHealth and WellnessCan shift work affect brain health?

Can shift work affect brain health?

A recent meta-analysis investigated whether performing shift work is associated with brain health, specifically, adverse cognitive health effects. 

Shift work, which generally describes working outside the range of 7:00am and 6:00pm, is an increasingly common phenomenon in today’s workforce.1,2 

It can be very beneficial for society and the economy, as it allows for services to be accessible to consumers throughout a larger range of hours. This is particularly important for emergency services, such as healthcare, first response teams, and more. 

However, recent research suggests that shift work may be associated with consequences for involved employees.1  

Studies have outlined potential associations between long-term shift work and a variety of adverse health effects, including sleep disorders, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity, among others.1,3,4,5  This may be because irregular hours and changing shift times can throw off sleep patterns and mess with the body’s circadian rhythms, or the body’s natural clock.  

This, in turn, may affect many systems and body functions.1

Cognitive processes, which are responsible for learning, thinking, and remembering information, also are believed to follow circadian rhythms.6,7  

A group of researchers in Austria explored the current research on whether disruption of these circadian rhythms, which shift workers are at an elevated risk for, is associated with cognitive health consequences.1  

The data was evaluated, and the results were published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

The analysis included 18 studies with a total of 18,802 participants. Six different behavioral outcomes were compared between shift workers and non-shift workers.1  

The findings of these studies were organized and interpreted. 

The study found that non-shift workers, or those who worked during conventional hours, exhibited better performance on five different cognitive functions: working memory, processing speed, psychomotor vigilance, visual attention, and cognitive control.1  Psychomotor vigilance refers to reaction time to a random environmental stimulus, and visual attention refers to the ability to recognize important visual information within the environment.8,9  

This was the first large-scale meta-analysis on this relationship, and the results suggest that within these studies, shift work may be associated with poorer performance on the five discussed cognitive functions.1  

More research is needed to confirm the validity of these findings and review any contradicting studies.  

Additionally, more research is needed to determine how to prevent any potential adverse effects of shift work on the health and well-being of employees.


  1. Vlasak, T., Dujlovic, T., Barth, A., et al (2022, March 8). Neurocognitive impairment in night and shift workers: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Doi: 10.1136/oemed-2021-107847
  2. Pacheco, D., Rehman, A. (2020, October 16). What is shift work? Sleep Foundation: A OneCare Media Company. Accessed 2022, March 15, from
  3. Caruso, C.C. (2014, January). Negative impacts of shiftwork and long work hours. Rehabil Nurs 39(1): 16-25. Doi: 10.1002/rnj.107
  4. Knutsson, A., Bogglid, H. (2010, March). Gastrointestinal disorders among shift workers. Scand J Work Environ Health 36(2): 85-95. Doi: 10.5271/sjweh.2897.
  5. Nena, E., Katsaouni, M., Steiropoulos, P., et al (2018). Effect of shift work on sleep, health, and quality of life of health-care workers. Indian J Occup Environ Med 22: 29-34. Doi: 10.4103/ijoem.IJOEM_4_18
  6. National Institute on Aging (2020, October 1). Cognitive Health and Older Adults. National Institutes of Health: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Accessed 2022, March 16, from
  7. Fisk, A.S., Tam, S., Brown, L.A., et al (2018). Light and cognition: roles for circadian rhythms, sleep, and arousal. Front Neurol 9(56): 10.3389/fneur.2018.00056
  8. Basner, M., Mollicone, D., Dinges, D.F. (2011, December). Validity and sensitivity of a brief psychomotor vigilance test (PVT-B) to total and partial sleep deprivation. Acta Astronaut 69(11-12): 949-959. Doi: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2011.07.015
  9. Lockhofen, D., Mulert, C. (2021, May 5). Neurochemistry of visual attention. Front Neurosci. Doi: 10.3389/fnins.2021.643597

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