'Night Owls' Are at Higher Risk of Dying and Shouldn't Be Forced to Work Early Mornings, Scientists Warn

So-called "night owls" have a higher risk of dying in comparison to early risers and therefore shouldn't be forced to work early in the morning, the authors of a new study have warned.

Research into almost 500,000 participants aged between 38 to 73 years of age showed those who are naturally inclined to go to bed late and struggle to rise early have a 10 percent higher mortality rate than so-called "larks." The participants ranked whether they were a "definite morning type", a "moderate morning type", a "moderate evening type" or a "definite evening type."

Of the half a million people who took part in the six-and-a-half-year-long UK Biobank Study, 50,000 were found to be more likely to die, even when the data was adjusted to accommodate their lifestyles.

Night owls faced higher rates of conditions such as diabetes, as well as psychological disorders and neurological diseases. Adapting to daylight savings changes was harder for them, too, according to the study authors.

"This is a public health issue that can no longer be ignored," Malcolm von Schantz, professor of chronobiology at the University of Surrey in the UK, said in a statement.

A new study shows that those who are naturally inclined to sleep late have a higher mortality rate. Alexandra Gorn/Unsplash

"We should discuss allowing evening types to start and finish work later, where practical. And we need more research about how we can help evening types cope with the higher effort of keeping their body clock in synchrony with sun time."

"There are already reports of higher incidence of heart attacks following the switch to summer time," added von Schantz. "And we have to remember that even a small additional risk is multiplied by more than 1.3 billion people who experience this shift every year. I think we need to seriously consider whether the suggested benefits outweigh these risks."

Kristen Knutson, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-lead author of the study, added: "If we can recognize these chronotypes are, in part, genetically determined and not just a character flaw, jobs and work hours could have more flexibility for owls.

"They shouldn't be forced to get up for an 8 a.m. shift. Make work shifts match peoples' chronotypes. Some people may be better suited to night shifts."

She suggested the internal biological clock of those who stay up late doesn't match their external environment.

"It could be psychological stress, eating at the wrong time for their body, not exercising enough, not sleeping enough, being awake at night by yourself, maybe drug or alcohol use. There are a whole variety of unhealthy behaviors related to being up late in the dark by yourself," she explained.

The results of the study published in the journal Chronobiology International follows research by the same authors which showed that being a night owl or lark comes down to a combination of genes and a person's environment.

But it's not all bad news, stressed Knutson. "You're not doomed," she said. "Part of it you don't have any control over and part of it you might."

Nighttime types worried about their health can help themselves by ensuring they are exposed to light early in the mornings, and avoiding it after sunset. Going to bed at the same time each night, and avoiding activities before hitting the hay are also important.

Next, the researchers want to test if they can change nightowls' body clocks to improve their health.

Jessica Alexander, a spokesperson for the Sleep Council, an organization which promotes healthy sleep habits, told Newsweek: "This latest research adds to the mounting body of evidence that shows how indispensable sleep is to our health, wellbeing and life expectancy.

"The world we live in (in Western, industrialized societies at least) is more geared up to early birds than to night owls, who are often trying to fit into the external world while at the same time carrying on sleeping - and being awake - as dictated by their internal body clocks. Result: sleep deficit, big time!

"The report rightly identifies that there may be other factors involved for sufferers – ranging from psychological stress through to unhealthy behaviors which also impact on sleep."

Mirroring the advice of the researchers, she added it is important to recognize your sleep type and organize your life accordingly. That includes creating a sleep conducive environment which is dark, cool, quiet, and has a comfortable bed. Paying attention to what and when you eat, drink or exercise is also key to a good night's sleep.

She added: "We've got the evidence. It's time to take sleep more seriously. More sleep education and more sleep support is what's needed now."

About the writer

Kashmira Gander is Deputy Science Editor at Newsweek. Her interests include health, gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, human rights, subcultures, music, and lifestyle. Her work has also been published in the The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The i Newspaper, the London Evening Standard and International Business Times UK.

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