Dear Dr. Z: I’m a middle-aged obstetrics nurse who does shift work. Shifts are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., or worst of all, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
My family life is scattered. I miss lots of dinners with friends, soccer games and parties. I always seem to be either tired or stressed out. I’ve got high blood pressure and diabetes. I’m overweight. I don’t sleep well. And I worry.
This can’t be good for me. I thought about quitting my job but I love the work. Any health tips? – OB Sally
Dear Sally: You’re the prototypical nurse who loves her work but hates her hours. Shift work is stressful for the psyche and, according to new research published in the British Medical Journal, it’s bad for your heart.
This was a study of studies. Researchers took 34 studies comparing shift workers to non-shift workers (the 9-to-5 bunch). They found that shift workers have a 23 percent higher rate of heart attacks overall. And when they analyzed which shift was the most dangerous to be on, it was the graveyard shift. Those workers had a whopping 40 percent increase in heart attacks.
This increase is something called relative risk. That means it takes your “regular” risk and increases it from that.
So if you’re a 25-year-old healthy OB nurse, you have an infinitesimally small risk of having a heart attack. Increasing that by 40 percent doesn’t mean much – the bottom-line risk is still very, very small.
But if you have risk factors for heart disease, then that 40 percent increased risk is significant. It really matters. So, Sally, I have some suggestions to help you keep that heart attack away.
First, don’t quit your job if you really like it, but take action to reduce your other cardiac risk factors. Make sure your diabetes and high blood pressure are under control. Talk to your doctor about taking a statin drug for cholesterol even though your cholesterol is not elevated. Recent research shows that statins may cut the risk of heart attacks in diabetics with normal cholesterol.
Next, consider your sleep habits – always an issue with shift work. Talk to your doctor about a sleeping pill. Prescription medications for sleep are better than ever. My suggestion is Trazodone, a non-addictive anti-depressant whose side effect is sleepiness. Taken in a small doses, it shouldn’t affect your mood and should give you a good night’s sleep.
And finally, shed a few pounds by cutting out some calories and exercising 90 minutes a week. Recent studies show that any exercise at all, from jogging to walking, yoga to dancing, significantly cuts cardiac risk. Anything that gets you moving is what keeps you moving.
My spin: Shift work is stressful work, no doubt about it. Taking action on those other heart-risk factors improves the chances that when you retire, you’ll get your Social Security for a long, long time.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.