A Red Flag for Jet Lag

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

It's the caged-mouse syndrome of air travel -- you feel crammed into your seat on a long-distance flight with little to munch on except a bag of pretzels.

But you better hope you beat jet lag better than a mouse.

A study at the University of Virginia released during the height of Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons showed that a majority of elderly mice died while being subjected to the equivalent of a Washington-to-Paris flight once a week for eight weeks. More intense forms of jet lag sped up the death rate in the elderly rodents, the study found.

For decades, flyers have stoically battled the modern-age problem of jet lag, viewing its accompanying grogginess, burning eyes, headaches, insomnia and fatigue as more of a nuisance than a potential health issue.

The study has focused new attention on the problem and raised questions about whether severe jet lag can be harmful to health. It also has drawn attention to work by other researchers looking into ways to help vacationing families and business travelers avoid jet lag. The study is one of the first hard scientific looks into the health effects of jet lag, experts said.

The condition has become such a common scourge of the jet age that an entire industry has emerged on the Internet, offering such solutions as acupressure kits, homeopathic pills and light-enhancing visors. Many travelers have invented their own treatments: slurping down gallons of coffee, dunking heads in ice-cold water, taking naps, jogging and popping sleeping pills and homeopathic remedies. But researchers say few of those remedies are backed by science.

In the study, younger mice seemed to rebound more quickly and were not immediately harmed by the jet lag. Simulated jet lag conditions were created by advancing and delaying the rodent's exposure to light.

Researchers aren't sure what conclusions to draw from the results.

Gene Block, the report's co-author, said older mice might be more susceptible to sudden light changes than younger mice. Or, he said, jet lag might be a health problem that builds up in younger subjects, causing future maladies.

To further explore the issue, his researchers have launched another set of tests to determine whether jet lag causes long-term health consequences in younger and middle-age rodents, Block said minutes before boarding a 14-hour flight to Japan from Washington.

"I feel like a subject in the experiment," said the 58-year-old, who recently returned from a conference in Italy. "Like many people, I am finding it more difficult to cope with jet lag as I get older. . . . I would like to know whether it's a phenomenon of old age or whether it is something I really have to worry about."

Block's study also hinted at what flyers have been saying for years: It is more difficult to adjust to time zone changes when flying east. The researchers found that 53 percent of elderly mice died when they were subjected to a simulated weekly flight from Washington to Paris over the eight-week study. The death rate dropped to 32 percent of elderly mice on a simulated Paris-to-Washington route, according to the study, which was published last month in the journal Current Biology. Seventeen percent of the mice in a control group died in the eight-week study.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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