(dailyRx News) Working as a police officer is stressful; so stressful, it turns out, that police officers may have a higher risk for a variety of physical and mental health problems.
The stress of police work is associated with an increased risk of obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer.
Police work may also increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, a condition that raises the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
John Violanti, PhD, of the University at Buffalo, and colleagues set up this recent study based on the assumption that officers have an increased risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases like diabetes.
It is thought that high demands and daily contact with death and sadness may add to officers' increased risk of long-term health problems.
"We wanted to know, in addition to stress, what are other contributing factors that lead to cardiovascular disease in police," said Dr. Violanti, former New York State Trooper.
The researchers found that shift work (work based on a 24-hour schedule) may contribute to metabolic syndrome.
Almost half of the officers (46.9 percent, or about 218 officers) in the study worked a non-day shift. In comparison, only 9 percent of U.S. workers work a non-day shift.
Among other findings, the researchers discovered that 40 percent of officers were obese, compared to 32 percent of the general public.
Metabolic syndrome was found in over 25 percent of officers, while 18.7 percent of the general public had the same syndrome.
Officers who reported the highest levels of stress were four to six times more likely to sleep poorly.
After working for 30 years, officers had a raised risk of brain cancer and Hodgkin's lymphoma (a cancer of the immune system).
Working officers were eight times more likely to commit suicide than retired officers or those who left the force.
"This finding challenges the common assumption that separated or retired officers are at increased risk for suicide," said Dr. Violanti.
Still, Dr. Violanti highlighted the need for continuing suicide prevention services for both active and retired police officers.
"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation," he said.
Even though police officers generally have health insurance, the culture of police work can get in the way of improving health, Dr. Violanti explained.
"The police culture doesn't look favorably on people who have problems," he said.
"Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you're an officer, but you fear asking for help," said Dr. Violanti.
He went on to explain that officers may not be allowed to go back on the street if they reveal they have a health problem like heart disease.
Officers who seek help for mental health problems may not get a promotion or may be shamed by their fellow officers.
Dr. Violanti's answer to these problems is to train officers in the police academy about the signs of stress and how to treat them.
The study - which involved 464 officers - was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The research is published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.