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Morning person or night owl? Study indicates which may have higher risks of dying sooner.

When the sun sets an hour later, it reduces nighttime sleep by roughly 20 minutes per week. [Times files]
When the sun sets an hour later, it reduces nighttime sleep by roughly 20 minutes per week. [Times files]
Published April 12
Updated April 12

Like staying up late? A new study suggests night owls burning the midnight oil could be more at risk for developing certain health complications, including fatal ones.

The study, conducted by Northwestern Medicine and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, took a look at 433,268 participants, ages 38 to 73 years old, for about 6˝ years, according to a news release.

It found that 10 percent of night owls, who tend to stay up late and have trouble getting up in the mornings, had higher mortality rates in that time period and higher rates of diabetes, psychological disorders and neurological disorders when compared to people who naturally preferred going to bed early and rising with the sun.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Chronobiology International, was also adjusted for expected health problems within the night owls. Even then, they still faced a 10 percent higher mortality rate.

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

Co-lead author Kristen Knutson, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said there are several factors at play when accounting for the higher mortality rates.

"It could be that people who are up late have an internal biological clock that doesn’t match their external environment," Knutson said in the news release. "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."

A person’s environment and genes each play a crucial role in determining if a person is a morning person or not. But there is hope.

"You’re not doomed," Knutson said. "Part of it you don’t have any control over and part of it you might."

Knutson added there are some lifestyle changes night owls can do to help prevent health risks, including making sure they’re exposed to light early in the morning and not at night. Keeping a routine with a rigid bedtime can also help, Knutson said in the release.

However, there are some things society can change to take some of the pressure off night owls.

"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," Knutson said. "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."

Another factor that makes things rough on night owls is Daylight Saving Time, von Schantz said in the release.

"There are already reports of higher incidence of heart attacks following the switch to summer time," says 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."

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