Police officers may have a higher-than-average risk of developing heart disease - not all of which can be explained by traditional risk factors, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that compared with the general population, officers with the Buffalo, New York, police force showed an elevated rate of early atherosclerosis - a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries than can lead to heart disease or stroke.
The difference, the study found, was not fully explained by the usual heart risk factors, such as older age, heavier weight, smoking and high blood pressure and cholesterol.
The findings suggest that aspects of police work itself may take a toll on heart health, the researchers report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Exactly what those factors are is not known, but stress is one suspect, Dr. John Violanti, who was involved in the study, told Reuters Health.
Over the course of a career, police officers are exposed to chronic, and sometimes traumatic, stress, noted Violanti, an associate professor of social and preventive medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Past studies have suggested that chronically elevated levels of “stress” hormones, like cortisol, may contribute to atherosclerosis. Violanti and his colleagues lacked stress-hormone measurements from their study participants, so it is not clear what role stress might have played in the findings.
The study included 312 police officers who were compared with 318 Buffalo-area residents, all of whom were free of heart disease symptoms. The researchers used ultrasound to measure thickening in the walls of participants’ carotid arteries; greater thickness is indicative of early, symptomless atherosclerosis.
Violanti’s team found that even when they factored in age, sex and a range of other heart disease risk factors, police officers generally had more thickening in the carotid arteries.
For now, the bottom line for police officers is that they should try to rein in all the heart risk factors that they can control - by, among other things, following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and not smoking, Violanti said.
He and his colleagues are currently studying cortisol levels in police officers, to see what role chronic stress may be playing in their heart health.
SOURCE: Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, June 2009.