Shift work and cardiovascular risk

It is well-known that shift workers have increased risk factors for serious heart disease, for example as reported in Knuttson’s 1986 Lancet paper on papermill workers. They are more likely to smoke and tend to have higher blood pressure, cholesterol and weight and be more likely to have diabetes than  workers whose work pattern is confined to the daytime. They are also more likely to have insomnia, itself an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Clinical pharmacologist Daniel Hackem from Ontario and his colleagues from Norway, Sweden and the USA had now raised further public and health professional interest in this disease link in a paper published in the British Medical Journal.

They looked at 34 previous studies of over 2 million shiftworkers. Together, there were over 17,000 heart events, over 6000 heart attacks and almost 2000 strokes. They concluded that stroke risk was around 5% higher and coronary event risk 24% higher in the shift-workers. Surprisingly, despite their large dataset, the researchers found no associated increase in mortality.

They take care to point out, as with any other observational study, that this is not necessarily a cause and effect relationship. People who take on shift work may be different in some unconnected way that puts up risk of vascular disease. Lower socio-economic status is an obvious important confounder. The work itself may be more stressful, at the same time as their being fewer other staff members in support ‘out of hours’. Shift workers may also take more caffeine to try to stay alert during often long shifts.

Nonetheless there are several key messages reinforced by this report.

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Why worry about high blood pressure?

Listen to blood pressure specialist Donald Singer and pharmacist Ejaz Cheema in discussion with Annie Othen on BBC radio about blood pressure, knowing your numbers, tips on blood pressure measurement, why treatment is important, and how doctors, nurses and pharmacists can help to keep people with high blood pressure as healthy as possible.

High blood pressure is a very common preventable cause of stroke, heart attack and other serious diseases. These complications may at best cause disability and are major causes of preventable premature death in the UK and around the world.

For the public in general, the lower the blood pressure the better: most blood pressure-related heart attacks and strokes occur at blood pressure levels within what many still consider to be normal blood pressure.

A healthy lifestyle will help to keep blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors in check. Keeping weight in check, regular exercise, minimising salt intake and moderation in alcohol, as well as eating healthy foods rich in fruit and vegetables all help, as does avoiding or stopping smoking.

For people with raised blood pressure, tests are important to rule out underlying causes and to identify other cardiovascular risk factors.

Blood pressure treatment is well-established as effective in helping to prevent or reduce severity of heart attack, stroke and other serious medical problems. However  blood pressure is still poorly controlled in many patients even in the most developed healthcare systems.

One of several reasons for poor blood pressure control is that many patients find it difficult to keep taking their tablets. Surprisingly, in people newly diagnosed with high blood pressure, as many as half may have stopped their tablets by 12 months.

It is as important to understand and address reasons for poor patient adherence with their medicines. These include not being sure of why blood pressure is important, reasons for choice of medicines, and concerns about possible or actual side effects of tablets.

Other contributory factors includes failure of prescribers to follow established national guidelines for choice of tablets and how they should be used singly or in combination. This risks exposing patients to avoidable side effects without achieving effective lowering of blood pressure.


An important element in approaches to improving adherence to blood pressure medicines is continuing education of health professionals and patients about high blood pressure and its treatment. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists can all play important roles in this.

What works as healthy lifestyle for losing excess weight?

A good time to get weight in trim? New Year is a familiar love_heart_cover_medtime for people to make resolutions and aims to improve lifestyle.

However advice on how to lose excess weight may be confusing and contradictory. Here is some helpful information on why overweight may be unhealthy and what works to help to reduce overweight.

Why bother about overweight?
Excess weight increases the burden of cardiovascular risk (high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and diabetes mellitus); causes premature ageing of arteries, leading to heart attacks, strokes and other serious disorders of the heart, brain and circulation; contributes to risk of sleep dusturbance and sleep apnoea syndrome; causes premature joint ageing with arthritis; non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the commonest cause worldwide of liver damage; and increased risk of cancers – weight gain and overweight estimated to be linked to 1 in 5 cancers.
People who have no difficulty in maintaining normal weight may find it difficult to understand the challenges. For those who are currently overweight, the challenges in regaining a more healthy weight include beating the psychological, physical and social addiction to causes of overweight, and resisting peer pressure.

Getting started
Importants steps on the path to reducing excess weight include being ready to think about action, to think about taking action and to prepare to take action. That might mean telling friends and family you are serious about losing weight, and to seek whatever help may work – e.g.  family doctor or nurse or other health professional, and support groups for the overweight.