Shift Work Linked to Diabetes

Diabetes rate in retired shift workers found to be higher than in non shift workers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Shift workers, or people who work outside of the typical 9-5 business day, may be sacrificing more than sleep in order to do their jobs; they may also be sacrificing their health.

A recent study found that retired shift workers were more likely than non-shift workers to report having diabetes.

According to the researchers, shift work can disrupt sleep cycles, which has been found in past research to negatively affect the body's ability to use glucose (sugar) — a key trait of diabetes.

"Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night."

This study was led by Timothy H. Monk, PhD, of the Sleep and Chronobiology Center at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The research team examined the risk of diabetes in retired shift workers.

Data was analyzed from a telephone survey that included 1,111 retired adults who were at least 65 years of age and had not performed shift work within the previous year.

Shift work exposure was split into five categories: 0 years, 1-7 years, 8-14 years, 15-20 years and more than 20 years. Participants who worked at least one year were considered to be shift workers, while the rest of the participants were considered non-shift workers. Study participants were asked, “Do you suffer from diabetes, also called sugar, requiring either pills or injections?” In this area of the country, "sugar" is a local slang term for diabetes.

The researchers took into account body mass index BMI — a measure of height and weight — and gender when analyzing their findings.

The researchers found that the percentage of people reporting diabetes was greater in each of the four shift worker groups when compared to the non-shift worker group.

Overall, about twice as many shift workers reported that they had diabetes when compared to non-shift workers. After accounting for gender and BMI, there was still a greater percentage of self-reported diabetes in the shift worker groups than in the non-shift worker group.

The researchers noted that their study did have some limitations, including that they relied on self-report of diabetes, and that no distinction was made between the different types of diabetes (i.e., type 1 versus type 2).

Past studies have shown that shift work is linked to insulin resistance, difficulty metabolizing glucose and an increased chance of developing diabetes for people who have impaired fasting glucose (high blood sugar levels).

Three strategies were presented to help employers address this problem:

  1. Identify situations where work at night may be optional and could potentially be avoided.
  2. Develop educational campaigns about the greater need for shift workers to adopt behavioral strategies for diet, exercise and sleep adjustment.
  3. Develop a general campaign to increase societal awareness about the need for regularity in their sleep-wake cycle, the best ways to facilitate circadian adjustment and the importance of getting an adequate amount of sleep.

This study was published on October 16 in the Journal of Biological Rhythms.

The study authors reported no potential conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
October 18, 2013
Last Updated:
October 21, 2013