Saturday, April 14, 2018

late to bed, early to die? night owls may die sooner

It is not one of those headlines that we bleary-eyed owls do not like to see first thing in the morning.

But there it was. On the front page of the newspaper's science section. If you are a night owl, you are speeding up your death.

The news is not new. After all, it was almost 400 years ago that Ben Franklin advised us that getting to bed early would give us life's trifecta: health, wealth, and wisdom. Not a bad bargain for wasting a third of your life in bed.

Oops! I think I may have given away my prejudice in this little debate.

The reason for the headline is a new scientific study. This one from the United Kingdom -- where health care is coming unraveled about as quickly as the "united" in the country's moniker.

The study brings bad news for night owls -- people who stay up late and do not get out of bed until well past sunrise. Prior studies showed a potential correlation between that behavior and a list of wealthy maladies: diabetes, obesity, psychological disorders, and a smattering of other problems most people would like to avoid.

What most of us would like to avoid (and none will) is death. And the current study takes care of that. Night owls may as well wear a shroud when they go out on the town. According to the study, in a given 6.5 year span, night owls were 10% more likely to die than their bed-ridden brethren.

For those of you who are shampooing with kerosene and are about to stand next to a bunson burner, calm down. The authors of the study have no idea what may be causing the increased death risk.

Of course, that does not keep reporters from filling their stories with assertions of causation (often confusing temporal proximity with actual causation) and editors from brewing up headlines that are designed to sell newspapers rather than to inform the public.

I started to write that I take these studies seriously because I have a dog in the fight. But, I do not take them seriously for the reason stated in the study: there may be no causative factor related to staying up late and having an increased chance of death.

 It would also be easier to take the study seriously if the authors had given a bit more adult thought to naming their study groups. "Night owls" has a long and glorious heritage. Everyone knows what you mean when you say it.

But, "morning larks?" It sounds like 
a group name for pre-schoolers whose first names begin with F to L. (At my grade school, the buses were named Mickey, Donald, and Pluto. I suspect that was before the Disney empire became a thugocracy.)
The dog I have in the fight is me. I have long been a night owl. According to my mother, it began when I was in grade school. Instead of going to sleep, I would read a book with a flashlight under my covers. I soon discovered hiding under the covers was nonsense. But I did work my way through a yard of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books.

As long as I can remember, I have stayed up until about 2 in the morning and then got up at 6 to go to school, work, church, or some other activity where I imagined myself to be at least a relevant participant.

Now and then, I even have trouble falling asleep at 2. But the practice has served me well for at least 50 years.

So, I thought I was free from the curse of the night owl. Apparently not, the study says those of us who burn our strudel at both ends are playing Mueller Roulette. Death lurks just as readily when night owls try to fool mother nature.

Now, what am I going to do about it? Let's see. Rule number 1 in life is that everybody dies. Rule number 2 is all the studies in the world cannot change rule number 1.

But, the newspaper article does accentuate a larger issue. I know numerous people who live their lives by these scare headlines. Even after the studies that were once touted have been toppled, people feel free to keep bad advice alive. All salt is bad for you. One bite of egg yolk will stop your heart. Drinking Diet Coke will cause you to vote for Trump.

Anyone who has spent an afternoon in an emergency room with a veteran of the Nurse Ratched corps will immediately understand the syndrome. And some researchers still wonder why the American public is skeptical of medical opinion.

As for me, I am sponsoring a Mexican party at my house as I write this. I suspect I will end up consuming a lot of things that some study somewhere has determined will kill me.

But I am going to try everything.

Maybe you can read about it in my obituary at 2 in the morning.    

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