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Proof that night owls really are living on the edge — and dying sooner

By Hoku Krueger ; Updated April 12, 2018

A new study published in the journal Chronobiology International found that night owls (people who regularly prefer to stay up late) are at an increased risk for early death.

So while these night owls may brag about their rich social lives and the ease with which they can stay up past midnight on New Year’s Eve, it turns out their pact with the moon is increasing their mortality rate by 10 percent.

To reach these findings, the researchers looked at the health outcomes of 433,268 people ages 38 to 73 living in the United Kingdom over a six-and-half-year period by using data from a cohort study called the UK Biobank Study. They sorted people into categories based on whether they were definite morning types, definite evening types, moderate morning types or moderate evening types.

After adjusting for factors like age, sleep duration and existing health problems, the researchers found that definite evening types were the ones showing a higher mortality rate.

“What we found is that the night owls, the definite evening types, were the ones that were at increased risk of mortality compared to the definite morning types — and the middle groups really weren’t,” Kristen Knutson, an anthropologist and the study’s lead author, tells the Los Angeles Times. “So it was really something about being a true evening type that was problematic.”

Though it remains unclear as to why night owls have an increased risk of mortality, Knutson suggests that it could be because their external environment is at odds with their internal biological clock.

“We think the problem is really when the night owl tries to live in a morning-lark world,” Knutson says. “So they want to be up late, but they have to be up early for work, and so the time that they’re doing things like waking up or eating is not at the correct time for them.” Oh, so it’s not healthy to stay up until 3 a.m. watching Netflix when you have to be at the office at 9 a.m. sharp? Thought-provoking.

Another theory is that staying up late isn’t the root of the problem at all. Instead, it could be that the factors causing people to stay up late are the same ones causing early mortality.

“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,” Knutson says in the statement. “There are a whole variety of unhealthy behaviors related to being up late in the dark by yourself.”

Though scientists have long studied the impacts that staying up late can have on our health, finding ties between pulling long nights and higher rates of metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease, this is the first study to investigate mortality risk, according to a statement from Northwestern University.

Concerned about your own sleeping habits? Changing them may be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

You Can Become an Early Bird

Night owls might be feeling pretty helpless right about now. But the good news is that they’re not actually doomed. Although genetics do have a hand in whether you’re wont to stay up past your bedtime, Knutson says that your environment plays an equal role.

If you want to change your ways and reap all the benefits of rising early, Knutson recommends that you get a lot of light early in the morning and very little at night (Bye-bye, binge-watching). You can also set an earlier bedtime and stick with it as much as possible.

Or Society Can Bend a Little

While forcing people to change on an individual level may be more convenient, Knutson says that society could help out by allowing night owls to start and end work later.

“If we can recognize these chronotypes [night owl versus early bird] are, in part, genetically determined and not just a character flaw, jobs and work hours could have more flexibility for owls,” Knutson says. “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.”

In future research, Knutson and colleagues want to identify ways to help night owls shift their body clocks and adapt to an earlier schedule. But until those findings are in, it’s clear that we should be doing the most to get a full night’s rest. Check out these tips on how to get the best sleep of your life. Your life might (literally) depend on it.

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