A $1.7 million research project is examining strategies to help night shift workers get more restful shuteye, critical to preventing ill health effects.  The project is funded by the National Institute of Aging and is led by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the University of Massachusetts in Lowell,  according to a statement.

The project will look specifically at different sleep schedules for employees between the ages of 50 and 65 .

“By next year, a quarter of the workforce will be over 55 years old,” Yuan Zhang, an associate professor in UMass Lowell’s Solomont School of Nursing, says in a statement. “Inadequate sleep is one of the most difficult problems facing American night workers. Given our increasing understanding of how sleep deficiency contributes to adverse performance, health and safety, finding solutions to this issue has never been more important.”

According to Zhang, quality sleep at any age is essential to overall health. But for 3 million older people in the US who work at night, sound rest is hard to come by. Sleep disruption can lead to depression, cardiovascular diseases and accidents on the job or at home.

Most employees who work the overnight shift sleep in the morning when they come home, which means they wake up eight or more hours before their next shift. That routine not only has them working when their biological clock wants their body to sleep, Zhang says, but they have been awake longer before starting work.

But an alternative schedule may be more beneficial for these workers, according to Zhang. To find out, the research team will recruit 75 study participants who work the overnight shift in the healthcare industry to test several sleep patterns for two weeks.

The researchers will also survey a group of 1,000 night-shift workers and conduct focus groups with a subgroup of the participants to help determine whether the proposed sleep schedules are beneficial.

Jeanne Duffy, a researcher in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, is leading the research, which builds upon her earlier work that found participants were more alert, performed better at night and had lower levels of cortisol – a hormone that is released in the body when an individual is under stress – in their system when they spent eight hours in bed after attempting to sleep beginning in the early afternoon, Zhang said.

“While a number of strategies to improve sleep and alertness in shift workers have been tested, few studies have focused on a sleep-pattern change for older adults, who are becoming a significant portion of the overall workforce,” says Zhang.

Night shift workers who are interested in participating in the study, can contact the researchers by calling 617-525-8904 or emailing nightwork@research.bwh.harvard.edu.