Police officers risk their lives daily, but a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that the most serious risk may be something unexpected: stress.
In the U.S., police officers face a higher risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD) when they’re involved in stressful situations—suspect restraints, altercations, or foot or car chases—than when they’re conducting regular, non-emergency activities, according to a new study from HSPH and Cambridge Health Alliance. The risk, the study says, is 30 to 70 times greater. While that is a very broad range, it demonstrates how impactful stress can be.
This is the first ever study to provide data that shows how stressful duties can affect on-duty SCD. The study was recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
“Although we suspected that strenuous police duties could trigger sudden cardiac deaths in vulnerable officers, we were struck by the magnitudes of the risks and their consistency across different statistical models,” said Stefanos Kales, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH and senior author of the study.
For the study, researchers looked at data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the Officer Down Memorial Page, specifically 441 SCDs occurring between 1984 and 2010. From these numbers, they identified 431 cases of duty-associated death.
According to the study:
The researchers combined the information on sudden cardiac deaths among police with estimates of the proportion of time that police officers spend on various duties, based on surveys from front-line officers and police chiefs. They found that police officers’ risk of sudden cardiac death was 34 to 69 times higher during restraints or altercations; 32 to 51 times higher during pursuits; 20 to 23 times higher during physical training; and 6 to 9 times higher during medical or rescue operations, as compared with routine or non-emergency activities. The researchers also found that SCD accounts for up to 10% of all U.S. on-duty police deaths.
Kales says that the study’s findings show that there’s a need for cardiovascular disease prevention efforts among law enforcement officers. “Our findings have important public health implications for health promotion among law enforcement officers and call for the implementation of primary and secondary cardiovascular disease prevention efforts such as lifestyle and medical interventions to reduce officer’s risk of sudden cardiac death,” Kales said.
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