As published as an editorial in The Hartford Courant, December 6, 2007.

Working the Graveyard Shift

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, along comes the World Health Organization with a finding that working the night shift is a probable cause of cancer.

The finding by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer doesn't mean the link between night work and cancer is conclusive. There might be other factors. It only means it's plausible.

After looking into elevated rates of breast and prostate cancer in industrialized societies, scientists suspect that working nights may disrupt the body's biological clock, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm.

That's significant because melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that suppresses the development of tumors, is usually produced at night.

Bigger studies are needed to confirm the findings. One thing is certain about the WHO study, however: It's a vindication for Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist and professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Dr. Stevens was among the earliest researchers to identify a connection between light at night and cancer, and published a paper on the subject two decades ago.

So, short of changing jobs, what's a night-shift worker to do? We don't intend to minimize the WHO's findings, but it's worth noting that stress and worry also take a toll on health.

And so we also offer a few of our own (admittedly unscientific) tips for staying healthy: stop smoking; eat less red meat and more fruits, cereals and vegetables; get plenty of sleep and exercise; breathe deeply; drink plenty of water (preferably tap water); drink alcohol in moderation; get a flu shot; and wear a seat belt.

The world is a rich and wonderful place. So smell the roses (or the seasonal equivalent). Enjoy your relationships and your passions. Life is short enough.