Health Tips: Officers are at a Higher Risk for Hypertension
Monitor your blood pressure to reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack
Even if you’re fresh out of the academy, chances are your law enforcement career already has presented you with a handful of high-stress, adrenaline-pumping events. But did you know that each time you experience one of these events, your risk for stroke and heart attack increases?
Bad guys are not the only thing putting your life at risk when you don the uniform each day. Not monitoring your blood pressure or making lifestyle changes when it begins to rise may cut your career and life shorter than you’d like.
The American Heart Association defines high blood pressure as occurring when the force of the blood flowing through your blood vessels is consistently too high. The difficult part of recognizing that your blood pressure is reaching a dangerous level is that it often has no symptoms. Headaches and vomiting are rare, said Louisville Metro Police Surgeon, Dr. Bill Smock.
“Blood pressure is the silent killer,” he said. “Officers are at a higher risk for cardiovascular events because every time they are in a stressful situation it can be life threatening. It could be a traffic stop, fighting with a suspect, clearing a house – something that causes their adrenaline to be dumped into their system. Adrenaline and cortisol will end up increasing the blood pressure and heart rate.
“The long term consequence of those repeated epinephrine and cortisol dumps is that it causes premature atherosclerotic disease, which is a hardening of the arteries and creation of plaque within the arteries,” Smock continued. “That increases your blood pressure because the heart has to work harder to pump into the arteries, which now are hardened and decreasing in diameter.”
While it sounds alarming, an ounce of prevention can go a long way. Smock suggests first and foremost that all officers receive an annual physical to look for changes in blood pressure or elevated cholesterol and triglycerides. Beyond that, if you don’t have a blood pressure cuff at home, check it occasionally at your local drug store when you are there. It may not be as accurate as the measurement in your doctor’s office, but it can at least offer a baseline.
Blood Pressure Levels
Normal Systolic*: less than 120 mmHg
Diastolic**: less than 80 mmHg
At risk Systolic: 120-139 mmHg
Diastolic: 80-89 mmHg
High Systolic: 140 mmHg or higher
Diastolic: 90 mmHg or higher
*Systolic = top number
**Diastolic = bottom number
Proper nutrition is a complicated issue, especially for patrol officers and deputies regularly eating meals in their cruisers. However, eating a healthy diet is one of the most critical parts of controlling blood pressure. When making choices at the drive thru, look for items that might be lower in salt, fat and cholesterol. Do some research when you are not on shift to identify which foods fit those guidelines at your favorite restaurants, so that when it’s time to eat, you can make fast, easy decisions.
Additionally, most officers consume only one of their three meals a day during a typical eight-hour shift. If you know you have limited time and options while you’re on duty, plan ahead to include as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you can during your other meals. The Center for Disease Control warns that not eating enough potassium also can increase blood pressure. Potassium can be found in bananas, and yogurt, items that are easy to take with you on the go.
As with proper nutrition, proper physical activity is a must. It may be a challenge, but keep it simple. The CDC recommends a brisk, 10-minute walk, three times a day, five days a week to maintain your physical health. Can you find 10 minutes to walk your beat between calls a few times per shift? Using that time to check in with local business owners, city workers or citizens will benefit more than just your physical health.
If you find that your blood pressure is becoming too high regularly, Smock suggests making lifestyle changes before taking medication because of the potential side effects of prescriptions. A healthy diet, exercise, and avoiding excess alcohol and tobacco will help. In Louisville, Smock said he has encouraged many officers to try yoga to reduce their stress and teach them how to breathe.
Learning a skill often taught in yoga such as diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, can help slow your heart rate and reduce your blood pressure immediately when you find yourself in a stressful situation.
“What I ask officers when they come in is, ‘How badly do you want to collect your pension?’” Smock said. “They say, ‘Oh yes, I want to retire.’ Then I tell them they need to change something, because if your blood pressure is up and your cholesterol is up, if you don’t change something, because you are an officer and at a higher risk for cardiovascular events, you won’t live as long. You put a lot of time in to collecting that pension, I want you to be able to enjoy your retirement.
“Here’s your wake-up call,” Smock continued. “Don’t ignore high blood pressure. It will shorten your life.”