What first responders can do to lower their cardiovascular disease risks
Even without departmental help, there are steps you take toward better health
The CDC reported approximately 697,000 deaths from heart disease in 2021 in the United States, making it the nation’s leading cause of death. A 2014 study found police officers may face a risk of cardiac death up to 70 times normal when involved in stressful situations. Even during training officers can face 25 times the risk of cardiac death as they do during more routine duties.
Law enforcement providers can take the following steps to help develop and maintain healthier cardiovascular habits.
It sounds simple: “Get good sleep.” However, it takes effort and discipline to implement healthy sleeping habits and sustain them over decades of police work. After a rough shift, it can be hard to turn your brain off.
Alcohol is a sleep inhibitor and can seriously affect your REM or deep sleep. Drinking yourself to sleep is not a good solution. Sleeping in a dark, cool environment with white noise or a fan can help the quality of your sleep. Be your own advocate and prioritize your sleep, especially before a shift. Life gets in the way, and there will be times you have to sacrifice sleep for your family. However, make sure you’re tapping into resources to get good naps in. Take shifts and assist when you can.
Stop mindlessly scrolling through your phone, playing video games and watching TV right before bed. The blue light on the screen tricks your brain and can impact your sleep cycles. Set your devices to night mode in a calming yellow light – or, better yet, put the devices aside. Try reading, meditating, cooking, being intimate with your partner, playing with the dog, or taking a hot shower. If you’re battling insomnia and need help, talk to a physician, but try not to depend on medications and sleep aids. There are plenty of sleep programs and assistance out there; find what works for you.
Exercise is a miraculous force for your health, but it takes discipline. Strenuous workouts reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) you build up working as a police officer.  It also increases the production of your body’s natural mood stimulators and painkillers known as endorphins. Anaerobic workouts increase your metabolism, improve blood flow and significantly reduce your chances of cardiovascular disease. 
Working out gives your mind and body a way to detach from work and the stresses that accompany it. Working out increases your confidence, mobility, flexibility and balance and strengthens your body to avoid injuries. Regular intense workouts help you sleep, give you more energy and increase your alertness. 
Maybe your agency doesn’t provide you with the means or paid time to work out on shift. This doesn’t mean you can’t do small things to stay fit. Knock out sets of squats, push-ups, jumping jacks, dips, or other physical activities throughout your shift. Work out before or after shift. Working out at the end of shift helps work off stress hormones.
You don’t have to put in an hour at the gym every day. There are many free programs, plans and videos you can tap into for quick workouts to increase your heart health, physical fitness and mental well-being. Stop making excuses and take your health into your own hands.
Diet and healthy eating
Police officers are notorious for having poor dietary habits. They work crazy hours, hit up fast food joints and indulge in nutrition-poor gas station food. I know I’m guilty of this (I love me some Taco Bell and Oreos). But the little things add up over time and take a toll on our health. As much as I loved munching on bags of sunflower seeds throughout my shift, the sodium was insane. Too much sodium will wreak havoc on your heart, causing hypertension (increased blood pressure). Beef jerky is a go-to for many officers, but its sodium and fats add up. We all know too much sugar is bad for us and adds to our waistlines, which comes with a long list of health complications.
I could go into detail and cite physicians and dietitians, but the officers reading this know a healthy diet is important. We just need little reminders here and there to get back on track. It’s OK to take advantage when there’s pizza or baked goods at events, but know that a long-term, consistent healthy diet is vital for your health. Pack your lunch, pick healthier snacks and avoid excess fat, sodium and sugar.
Reduce or stop tobacco
Do I really have to explain at this point that tobacco is bad for your health and ruins your heart and lungs? You know it is not good for you, so don’t be surprised when you have cardiovascular complications, cancer, etc. Enough said.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke and contribute to cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects heart muscle.  The calories in excessive alcohol can lead to weight gain and all the health complications that accompany it.
Cut out/reduce energy drinks and too much caffeine
Caffeine in moderate doses has positive health impacts, including increased metabolism, boosted energy levels, increased heart health, athletic performance and more.  Coffee and tea, in particular, have been shown to have plenty of health benefits. ] Energy drinks, on the other hand, are horrible for you, and yet some officers constantly consume them to overcome sleep deprivation. According to the Journal of the American Heart Association, “energy drink consumption has been associated with cardiac arrest, myocardial infarction, spontaneous coronary dissection, and coronary vasospasm.” 
Energy drinks change the electrophysiological system in your heart. They increase your blood pressure and have been shown to lead to atrial fibrillation.  And that’s just short-term use. The verdict is still out on the long-term impacts. One of the easiest ways to immediately impact your health is to cut out energy drinks.
I must disclose, I am a coffee and tea lover. That is part of the reason my nonprofit has two different coffee blends. We do not have coffee partners, so the proceeds go to our police resuscitation programs. And while my nonprofit does benefit from coffee sales, and I’m a little biased on the matter, the facts are there. Coffee in moderation has an incredible amount of research backing its health benefits, whereas the research on energy drinks shows the opposite.
Get your yearly physicals, blood work and heart screenings
“Heart disease” is a blanket term and covers a multitude of conditions, like cardiac arrest, myocardial infarction, heart failure, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, etc. A lot of these complications don’t just happen. For example, blockages develop over time, genetic complications can cause the heart muscle to enlarge, and arrhythmias can occur for long periods before a medical emergency ensues. Get your heart screened. Get your blood work done. Get your annual physical. So many first responders could detect issues if they would just be proactive about their health.
Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes.  I was 26 when I had mine, off duty in my home. I had just completed my department’s SWAT team selection process, including the medical evaluation, weeks before I collapsed in front of my wife. We are not invincible. Get proactive and take care of your health.
Prepare your family and friends for resuscitation emergencies
Families and friends can become reliant on your training and skills as a first responder. I have heard many spouses say, “Oh, if anything ever happens, my husband/wife is a cop/firefighter, and they’ll take care of it.” Guess what? We may be the ones suffering a cardiovascular event. First responders need to prepare, train and equip our spouses, kids, roommates and friends to intervene in a medical emergency.
Many officers prepare their families for possible law enforcement interventions while off duty. They determine code words, practice drills with spouses, tell them what to do, what info to give 9-1-1, etc. But how many officers prepare that way for heart disease, one of our leading causes of death? How many officers have AEDs in their homes? How many have practiced their lifesaving skills with their spouses and kids? The reality is 4 out of 5 cardiac arrests happen in the home. 
Don’t ignore what your body tells you
“I’m fine.” How many times do officers say that when they are anything but? We like to pull the alpha card and “walk it off” or ignore warning signs because we hope it passes. We listen to our gut and intuition on the streets, but for some reason we ignore our bodies when it comes to our health. If you’re willing to ask for backup for a radio call, ask for backup where your health is concerned. That flutter in your heart, that sudden chest pain, that tingling in your extremities is not something to ignore.
I always thought that if I died young, it would be serving my community (or doing something stupid). I never thought I would die in my den reading a book. You never know when your time will be up. Don’t ignore the warning signs.
Play the “what if?” game when it comes to your medical health. If you’re hurt in the line of duty or suffer a medical emergency, do you have a backup plan? Is there money set aside for bills and long-term care? Are you mentally prepared if you can’t go back to work? A lot of officers don’t think about these things until it’s too late, and it’s detrimental to their mental health.
Take care of yourselves and your fellow officers. We need you out there, serving and making an impact every day you put that uniform on.
- Understanding cardiovascular disease risks for first responders
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