According to a new study, people who tend to stay up late have a 10 percent higher risk of dying sooner than people who naturally go to bed early, who are referred to as “larks.”
The analysis involved nearly half a million participants from the UK Biobank Study. The researchers found that 50,000 of these individuals who were classified as night owls were more likely to die younger than those who were not.
Study co-lead author Kristen Knutson is an associate professor of Neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“Night owls trying to live in a morning lark world may have health consequences for their bodies,” said Knutson.
While previous research has been focused on the higher rates of metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease found in people who go to sleep in later hours, this study is the first to examine mortality risk.
“This is a public health issue that can no longer be ignored,” said study co-author Malcolm von Schantz.
“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.”
Professor Knutson explained some of the possible underlying causes of the link between night owls and premature death.
“It could be that people who are up late have an internal biological clock that doesn’t match their external environment,” said Knutson.
“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.”
It is also harder for late-night individuals to adjust to daylight savings time.
“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.”
Researchers have previously reported that genetics and environment play essentially equal roles in whether people are night owls or early birds.
“You’re not doomed,” said Professor Knutson. “Part of it you don’t have any control over and part of it you might.”
She explained that there are ways that people can transition away from staying up late, such as adopting a more regimented sleep schedule. Professor Knutson also recommended getting exposure to light early in the morning, but not at nighttime.
The study is published in the journal Chronobiology International.