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Can Being a Cop Kill You? Sudden Stress Raises Cardiac Risks: Study

Breaking up fights and chasing and arresting suspects may be the deadliest parts of police duty, not only because of the obvious risks of violence, but because they may trigger heart attacks.

An in-depth study of what kills cops shows that sudden stress can set off heart attacks. The risk of sudden heart death is as much as 69 times higher when police are struggling to restrain people or fighting, a team reports in the journal The BMJ.com.

“We found that stressful and physically demanding law enforcement activities were associated with large increases in the risk of sudden cardiac death, compared with routine/non-emergency policing activities,” the team, led by Stefanos Kales of the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote.

Law enforcement is already a dangerous occupation. “In 2011-12, the fatality rate among patrol officers in the United States was 15-16 per 100,000 full-time workers, about three to five times the national average for private sector employees,” the researchers wrote. Most are caused by trauma such as shooting or accidents.

And police already have a high risk of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans. Kales found in an earlier study, for example, that three-quarters of police officers, firefighters and other first-responders have high blood pressure.

They looked at two databases covering the deaths of more than 4,500 US police officers between 1984 and 2010 from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the Officer Down Memorial Page.

During that time, 441 police officers had suffered sudden cardiac death. About a quarter died while restraining or fighting someone; 20 percent died during physical training; 12 percent died while chasing a suspect; 8 percent died during some sort of rescue operation; 23 percent died while performing routine duties such as desk work or writing parking tickets and the rest were classified as “other.”

The risk of dying suddenly was 34 to 69 times higher during restraints or altercations and 32 to 51 times higher during pursuits, Kales and colleagues found.

“For example, if police officers spend 75 percent of their time on routine/non-emergency duties, we would expect 75 percent of sudden cardiac deaths to be associated with such duties,” they wrote.

But in fact, 77 percent of deaths occurred during non-routine duties. “Physical restraints and altercations comprised about 1-2 percent of a police officer’s annual professional time but accounted for 25 percent of on-duty sudden cardiac deaths,” the team wrote.

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— Maggie Fox