Police Officers May Face Added Health Risks: Study

On top of putting their personal safety on the line every day, police officers also face mental stressors and other effects of the job that could be putting their health at risk, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo examined the mental and physical health of members of the Buffalo Police Department in New York over a five-year period, to identify conditions for which police officers may have a higher risk. CBC News reported that 464 police officers participated in the study.

For one, the researchers found that almost half of the officers in the study work the night shift (a significantly higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population, of which 9 percent does shift work).

The researchers found that the shift work was linked with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. The condition is comprised of a group of conditions, including excess body fat, high cholesterol and increase blood pressure or blood sugar levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation, highlighting the need to expand the definition of health disparity to include occupation as well," study researcher John Violanti, Ph.D., professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Buffalo, said in a statement.

Researchers found that 40 percent of police officers were obese in the study -- higher than the 32 percent estimated to be obese in the U.S. population. And 25 percent of officers had metabolic syndrome -- higher than the 18.7 percent estimated to have the syndrome in the U.S. population.

Sleep problems seemed to be linked with job stress, too. Researchers found that police officers who said they were the most stressed out were also more likely to sleep poorly. For female police officers, poor sleep was four times more likely; for male officers, it was six times more likely.

Researchers also found a link between working for more than 30 years as a police officer and developing brain cancer or Hodgkin's lymphoma.

And current work as a police officer was linked with an eight times increased risk of suicide, compared with past work as a police officer, researchers found.

Proper recognition of stress (and understanding how to treat it) is important in helping police officers to maintain their health while on the job, researchers said.

"If I tell you that the first time you see a dead body or an abused child that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so that when it does happen, you will be better prepared," Violanti said in the statement. "At the same time, middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that officers are not afraid to ask for that help."

Previous research from Violanti has also shown links between the type of shift work and suicide risk among police officers. That small study, which included 115 police officers, showed that female police officers were more likely to have depression or ideas of suicide if they worked the day shift, while male police officers were more likely to have these feelings if they worked afternoons or nights.

"It's possible women may feel more uneasy and stressed in a daytime shift, where there can be more opportunity for conflict and a negative environment," Violanti said in a statement. "On the other hand, higher suicide ideation reported by males on the midnight shift may be accounted for in part by a stronger need to be part of the social cohesiveness associated with peers in the police organization. Working alone at night without the support of immediate backup can be stressful."

Police officers aren't the only ones in public safety who may face added health risks. Past studies have also shown that firefighters may be more likely to develop testicular, prostate, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma cancers, compared with other people, Medical News Today reported.

And MSNBC reported that the act of fighting a fire raises the risk of heart attack by as much as 100 times, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.