Police officers in the United States face a 30 to 70 times higher risk of sudden cardiac death when they’re involved in stressful situations, according to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Cambridge Health Alliance.
Northfield police Officer Marty Peary, an 18-year veteran of the force, died last month, a day after he had a heart attack.
In May, retired Hamilton Township police Capt. Timothy P. O’Hara had a fatal heart attack.
In 2012, State Police Trooper Jim Hoopes died in the line of duty after he had a heart attack during a training session on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Stress management, health maintenance, exercise and healthy eating are practices medical experts and South Jersey police officers say are ways to stay protected from heart attack — on and off duty and after retirement.
“Because of their job, police officers are under a more significant amount of stress compared to the general public. They take that stress home with them at the end of their shift, too,” said Stefanos Kales, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of the study.
The study found that sudden cardiac death accounts for up to 10 percent of all U.S. on-duty police deaths. There is less data available for off-duty and post-retirement heart attack deaths, said Kales, who is also chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Eating well and exercise are important to maintain good heart health, Kales said. Poor eating habits for police officers because of time constraints can contribute to poor heart health.
“It’s really easy to eat a slice of pizza or a burger fast while an officer is working, but not as easy to eat a salad fast on duty,” Kales said.
Stafford Township police Patrolman Chris Fritz serves as his department’s physical training instructor and directs the physical training program at the Ocean County Police Academy. He said managing stress is key to avoiding poor heart health.
“Making healthy choices and managing stress is important to make part of an officer’s lifestyle, to have a healthy career and not lead a dysfunctional life,” Fritz said.
Fritz said it’s easier to instill health knowledge with police recruits, but more difficult to get current active officers to listen to what they need to do.
Police officers need to perform regular cardio training with high intensity intervals and incorporate the same with weight training, Fritz said.
Fritz, 42, recommends Crossfit training to work the body up to anaerobic lung capacity.
When officers are involved in a foot pursuit or a struggle, at that time they are at the bottom lung capacity, which is anaerobic capacity, he said.
Fritz said one of the most important factors in the job is to be cognizant of the stressors that police officers see every day.
“We see the darkest, lowest points of our community, and that stress we carry with us. You have your employer stresses, personal life, alcohol, drinking and that adrenaline rush every time you make a stop. Every time you do that, physically you’re taxing your body,” he said.
Stressful situations that can trigger heart attacks in officeres include suspect restraints, altercations or chases, according to the study.
The study found the risk of sudden cardiac death for police officers 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 six to nine times higher during medical or rescue operations compared with the risks during routine or nonemergency activities.
Stafford police Officer Michael Morrin is 42 years old, works out daily and has won first place in the department’s physical training test for the last two years. Practicing a regular fitness routine and eating clean contributes to how he feels at work and at home, Morrin said.
“If I don’t work out that one hour a day, my blood pressure feels high. And if I work out at the end of my shift, I feel better about everything, and my chest isn’t tight,” he said.
Contact: 609-513-6686 DWeaver@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressWeaver