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Study: Police Face Higher Risk of Cardiac Death Under Stress

By Kayla McGarrell, Contributing Writer

A study published by researchers from the School of Public Health and Cambridge Health Alliance found that police officers face a higher risk of sudden cardiac death during high-stress activities than when they are conducting routine duties.

The paper follows a previous study on the risk of sudden cardiac death members of the fire service face in stressful versus non-emergency situations.

“We had done previous studies in the fire service where we demonstrated that the risk of an acute cardiovascular death is greatly increased during strenuous duties like putting out a fire or responding to an alarm, conducting some sort of emergency rescue compared to routine duties,” said the study's senior author Stefanos N. Kales, an associate professor at the Medical School and the School of Public Health.

“We thought that similar effects and phenomena could be occurring among law enforcement officers, but obviously we needed to put together a study to see if that hypothesis was true,” he said.

According to the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, police spend about 25 percent of their time in high-stress situations, including suspect restraints, altercations, and chases. These types of environments cause 30 to 70 times higher risk of sudden cardiac death among police officers compared to routine or non-emergency activities. Even physical training, a task most officers said they do not find very stressful, saw a 20 to 25 times higher risk for sudden cardiac death than routine work.

“The fact that 10 percent of the deaths are coming from heart disease, which is a largely preventable condition, means that officers can either get in better shape or maintain high levels of physical fitness throughout their career and dramatically decrease their risk,” Kales said. “Police departments can also take measures such as making sure police officers don't smoke or use tobacco and give them regular medical examines.”

Kales said he and his fellow researchers plan to continue their work in studying law enforcement by looking at factors such as prevention and control to make dangerous jobs safer.

“Hopefully they will be able to perform their job more effectively, as well,” Kales said.

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ResearchHarvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthMedicine