Officer Wellness Spotlight
Prevention and Early Detection of Heart Disease
“I would like you to schedule your heart attack.” This was what my doctor told me during a long-delayed checkup at age 38 with 16 years as a police officer. My cholesterol and triglyceride levels were 2 to 2 ½ times beyond the acceptable ranges. Many officers have reached this point in life, but early prevention and action can help them avoid more serious health complications.
A heart attack is generally defined as the cessation of blood flow in the body. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a waxy substance found in foods of animal origin, can line artery walls, restricting natural blood flow and increasing the risk of heart disease.1 Triglycerides come from consuming excess calories, alcohol, or sugar. These fats formed by the body provide energy, but high levels can be dangerous, indicating an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and death.2
High cholesterol and triglycerides do not carry any outward symptoms or obvious side effects, so being aware of the risks can help extend police officers’ lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the other leading risk factors for heart disease.
- High blood pressure
- Smoking and secondhand smoke
- Obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity3
Most of these risk factors affect a large portion of police officers. They can be caused by stress, traumatic events, shift work, and exposure to chemical and environmental hazards on duty.4
Shift work can strain the body and disrupt normal sleeping patterns. Further, long hours being sedentary in a police cruiser leaves officers feeling like they have no time for proper meal planning. Poor food choices, such as fast food and prepackaged unhealthy snacks, are usually plentiful. These factors are compounded by high stress and exposure to a cumulative excess of negativity while on the job.
One study comparing the life expectancy of a police officer with that of the general population made two key findings.
- The average age of a law enforcement officer who has suffered a heart attack is 49 years, compared to 67 years for the general U.S. population.
- Officers are 25 times more likely to die or become disabled from heart disease than from a suspect’s violent action.5
With these statistics in mind, officers should take necessary precautions to avoid the potentially fatal health outcomes of police work.
Heart disease is easily preventable and should not contribute to an officer’s shorter life expectancy. Five healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent the condition altogether or detect it before it becomes life-threatening.
Routine Medical Visits
High blood pressure damages the lining of the arteries, building plaque and narrowing those leading to the heart and brain.6 Officers should schedule regular checkups to monitor cardiac health and not delay the appointments. Getting blood work, measuring vitals, and consulting with a medical professional, at least annually, can save lives.
Preparing balanced, nutritious meals before shifts can help avoid the lack of healthy food choices available to police officers. Even “healthy” food at restaurants is typically high in sodium and fat. Bringing meals to work has the added advantages that quality and quantity of food can be controlled, essential meals are not skipped, healthy food is at hand, and money is saved.7
It is important to plan ahead by making grocery lists and cooking food that is simple to make and enjoyable to eat.8 Officers can prepare large batches of food in advance and freeze it in individual containers to provide ready-to-go meals available for a few weeks.9
“The average age of a law enforcement officer who has suffered a heart attack is 49 years, compared to 67 years for the general U.S. population.”
Increased physical activity outside of work can reduce cardiac health risks and help offset sedentary time spent on duty. Even without any other risk factors present, physical inactivity alone can lead to heart disease because it can cause serious problems, such as obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.10
Unhealthy foods, such as those high in saturated and trans fats, added sugar, and sodium, increase a person’s chance for developing heart disease and high blood pressure. Lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all part of a healthy diet.11 When shopping for groceries, officers should avoid unhealthy foods to reduce temptation at home or when packing food for work.
Tobacco and exposure to secondhand smoke should be avoided because of how it is known to damage the body. Smoking causes 1 in 4 deaths from heart disease and stroke.12
Police officers play an important role in society because they respond to emergencies and handle issues regularly. Unfortunately, they are dying from heart disease that, although sometimes undetectable, is easily preventable. All officers should apply the same strategy used in crime prevention to heart disease — it is easier to prevent a heart attack than try to survive it.
Instead of being part of the statistic, officers should get regular checkups, prepare meals ahead of time, increase physical activity outside of work, limit unhealthy foods and alcohol, and stay away from smoking and secondhand smoke. Instead of scheduling a heart attack, they should schedule their future.
“All officers should apply the same strategy used in crime prevention to heart disease — it is easier to prevent a heart attack than try to survive it.”
Lieutenant Eric Burgett of the Middleburg Heights, Ohio, Police Department, prepared this Officer Wellness Spotlight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Family Heart Foundation, “What is LDL Cholesterol?” accessed April 19, 2022, https://thefhfoundation.org/ldl_cholesterol.
2 Cleveland Clinic, “Triglycerides and Heart Health,” accessed April 25, 2022, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17583-triglycerides--heart-health.
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Heart Disease and Stroke,” last reviewed May 23, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/heart-disease-stroke.htm.
5 John Violanti et al., “Life Expectancy in Police Officers: A Comparison with the U.S. General Population,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 15, no. 4 (2013): 217–228, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4734369/pdf/nihms-742459.pdf.
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
7 Isabelle Sauve, “You Are What You Prep,” Blue Line Magazine, April 2017, 25-26, https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?m=44080&i=397884&p=24&ver=html5.
10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.